Employment Law and Transgender Discrimination and Title VII

Our employment law attorneys are often asked, “Is it illegal to discriminate against someone under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act because of being transgender?”

Last week the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers MI and three other states) ruled on the case of Aimee Stephens, a transgender funeral director, who was fired when she told her boss that she planned to transition from a man to a woman.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued on Stephen’s behalf, claiming that discriminating against her for being transgender was a form of unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The district court that initially handled the case ruled that while transgender status itself may not be protected under Title VII, expecting an employee to adhere to a gender stereotype is.  However, the district court also held that the funeral home had a right to fire Stephens under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because Stephen’s boss claimed a religious objection to her planned transition.

The appellate court reversed the district court’s decision.  First, it broadened the protection afforded to Stephens under Title VII.  It agreed with the district court that discrimination based on sex stereotyping is prohibited by Title VII, but also found that anti-trans discrimination in and of itself is sex-based discrimination and thus illegal.  “[I]t is analytically impossible,” the court noted, “to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.”  Additionally, the appellate court rejected the district court’s finding that the funeral home was protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because allowing Stephens to work there would not be a “substantial burden” on religious exercise and there is a “compelling interest” in protecting employees from sex discrimination.

This case is just the latest in a larger national trend towards interpreting Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination more broadly, to give employees greater protection from discrimination in the workplace.  If you’ve been discriminated against on the basis of sex, including transgender status, you have rights.  Call the employment law attorneys at Gold Star Law, or contact us in writing, to learn more about what our sex discrimination lawyers can do to help.