A Federal Court Just Made a Big Decision About Transgender Rights

Vincent Yu/Associated Press

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In a landmark decision on Wednesday, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it is illegal for employers to discriminate against transgender workers under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 
Sharon McGowan, a lawyer for Lambda Legal, a LGBT-rights advocacy group, told Buzzfeed that the decision adds to “the overwhelming consensus” of the judiciary that LGBT people are protected under the law, despite the Trump’s administration’s insistence that they are not. “The significance of this decision is hard to overstate,” McGowan said.
The case, Equal Employment Opportunity v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., was brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman. According to the ruling, Stephens worked at Harris Funeral Homes “while living and presenting as a man.” When she informed her boss, Thomas Rost, of her intention to transition from male to female, Rost fired her. Stephens then filed a complaint with the EEOC.
According to the lawsuit, Stephens’s firing amounted to unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII—a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex [or] national origin.” The Funeral Home argued that Title VII should not be enforced in this case, because doing so would “constitute an unjustified substantial burden upon Rost’s (and thereby the Funeral Home’s) sincerely held religious beliefs, in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).”
This is the first time, according to Reuters, that the court has considered a religious defense in a case on unlawful sex bias. The ACLU told Buzzfeed that the decision therefore sets an “important precedent” and “ensures that employers will not be able to use their religious beliefs against trans employees, ruling that there is no ‘right to discriminate’ in the workplace.”
The case will now return to a lower district court for “further proceedings.”