DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - A federal judge is affirming the religious freedom of a Michigan funeral home in a case spurred by a disgruntled transgender individual.
In a decision last week, U.S. District Judge Sean Cox, a President George W. Bush appointee, ruled R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes did not violate law in terminating the employment of a man who declared he would begin showing up to work dressed as a female.
The case originated with a 2014 complaint filed by Aimee Stephens, born Anthony Stephens, who contends he had been fired from his position as funeral director after providing his employer with a letter outlining his plans to undergo a "gender transition" and to inform the business he would begin appearing as a female.
"I have a gender identity disorder that I have struggled with my entire life," Stephens admitted in the 2013 letter. "Toward that end, I intend to have sex-reassignment surgery."
Legal representation for Stephens argued the funeral home violated "Title VII by firing an employee because [he] is transgender and did not conform to the employer's gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes." Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids workplace discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex or national origin.
Speaking on behalf of Harris Funeral Homes president and owner Thomas Rost, lawyers from the Christian-conservative Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) contended Rost's Christian faith "informs the way he operates his business and how he presents his business to the public." The gender-specific dress code, the ADF representatives continued, is to insure families are respected in their time of mourning.
"The court finds that the funeral home has met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely held religious beliefs," the 56-page ruling from Judge Cox declared.
In a significant passage, and one Stephens' lawyers view as setting a "dangerous" precedent, Cox stated, "[N]either transgender status nor gender identity are protected classes under Title VII."
The judge additionally chastised the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which had filed the lawsuit, for not challenging the funeral home's gender-specific dress code instead. "If the compelling [state] interest is truly in eliminating gender stereotypes, the court fails to see why the EEOC couldn't propose a gender-neutral dress code as a reasonable accommodation that would be a less restrictive means of furthering that goal under the facts presented here," Cox noted.
The nation's leading LGBT activist groups were quick to condemn the judge's ruling, with the Human Rights Campaign calling it a "highly flawed decision," and the American Civil Liberties Union warning that the case "represents the dangerous slippery slope."
The Rost legal team expressed the opposite reaction. "It's a big victory for religious freedom," remarked ADF attorney Doug Wardlow. "The government doesn't have the ability to force business owners to violate their religious beliefs about human sexuality, or anything else, for that matter."
The Stephens court battle marks the first time Title VII has been cited as applying to purported discrimination against a transgender individual.
The Catholic Church has clearly maintained Her position against the push for gender identity rights, with Pope Benedict XVI declaring in 2012, "The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious." Likewise, Pope Francis has denounced transgender ideology, decrying the "ideological colonization" being forced on children.