Funeral Home Director Fired for Being Transgender

August 18, 2016

Aimee Stephens worked as director of a Detroit-area funeral home for six years, responsible for preparing and embalming bodies.  Although she is transgender, she initially hid her female appearance and identity from her employer during her employment, presenting as male.  When Ms. Stephens informed her employer that she had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and would begin presenting as female at work, she was fired. 

The ACLU of Michigan represented Ms. Stephens in filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), arguing that the funeral home, by firing her for presenting as female, engaged in unlawful gender stereotyping in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. 

After investigating the case, the EEOC concluded that Ms. Stephens’ employer had violated her rights under Title VII and in September 2014 filed a lawsuit on her behalf in federal court.  This case, along with another filed the same day in Florida, is the first time the EEOC has challenged discrimination against transgender employees under Title VII. 

In April 2015 Judge Sean Cox denied the funeral home’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.  The funeral home then retained counsel from the Alliance Defense Fund and, for the first time, asserted that it had a “religious freedom” right to fire Ms. Stephens.  Following discovery, both parties filed motions for summary judgment, and the ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief, explaining that courts have long held that a person’s religious beliefs do not give employers, businesses and universities a free pass to violate our civil rights laws. 

Unfortunately, in August 2016 Judge Cox accepted the funeral home’s religious freedom defense.  Judge Cox ruled that the funeral home had violated the Civil Rights Act by firing Ms. Stephens, but that a separate federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act immunized the funeral home from liability.  The ACLU has urged the EEOC to appeal. 

(EEOC v. Harris Funeral Home; ACLU of Michigan Attorneys Jay Kaplan and Dan Korobkin; National ACLU Attorneys John Knight and Brian Hauss.)

View the full 2014-2015 Legal Docket.

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