On Wednesday, a federal court ruled that transgender employees are protected by workplace anti-discrimination laws in a move that bolsters LGBTQ workers' rights throughout the country. Specifically, it was the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that made the ruling, determining that a Michigan funeral home violated the law by firing a transgender woman after she told the company's owner she was transitioning.
The woman, Aimee Stephens, was fired in 2013 after informing the owner of R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home, Thomas Rost, that she was transgender and began wearing women's clothes to work. For his part, Rost has argued that employing her would be burdensome to his ability to conduct his business in accordance with his deeply-held religious beliefs, and thus would be a violation of his religious freedom.
Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore said the following in explaining the appeals court's decision, as Reuters detailed, concluding that Stephens' firing was "illegal."
"Discrimination against employees, either because of their failure to conform to sex stereotypes or their transgender and transitioning status, is illegal under Title VII," Moore wrote. "The unrefuted facts show that the funeral home fired Stephens because she refused to abide by her employer’s stereotypical conception of her sex."
The decision helps set a judicial precedent that LGTBQ workers, and specifically transgender workers, should be protected under laws prohibiting sex discrimination in the workplace. According to The Associated Press, Rost himself responded that the 6th Circuit Court’s ruling "didn't surprise" him, and reportedly declined to comment further.
Stephens was reportedly represented in her case by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan. In a statement, ACLU LGBT & HIV Project senior staff attorney John Knight commented on the importance of the decision.
“Today’s decision is an exciting and important victory for transgender people and allied communities across the country," Knight said. "In too many workplaces around the country, coming out as trans is a fireable offense, as our client Aimee Stephens personally experienced.”
“But this ruling affirms that that is illegal, setting an important precedent confirming that transgender people are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act."
The portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that's relevant to this case is Title VII. It's been an absolutely crucial cornerstone of anti-discrimination protections for historically marginalized employees for decades, especially for women who've wanted to pursue careers. Specifically, it states the following:
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer:
(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or
(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Simply put, the historic protections afforded by Title VII helped usher a wave of American women into the workplace, and advocates have long argued that such protections from discrimination on the basis of "sex" should also be given to LGBTQ workers.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling on Wednesday is a validation of that argument. To be clear, it's possible that this won't be the last ruling on this matter, as the case could conceivably be appealed to the Supreme Court. But for the time being, this stands as a notable and important decision for the working lives of millions of LGBTQ Americans.