Amicus Brief in Support of Aimee Stephens in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc.

An amicus brief submitted by the Law, Rights, and Religion Project (Formerly the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project) in the case of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission versus R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. This case highlights a case of discrimination against a transgender woman, Aimee Stephens, on the basis of her gender identity and expression.

Elizabeth Boylan
April 25, 2017

Amicus Brief in Support of Aimee Stephens in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc.

Access a .pdf of this Press Release, here

Access a .pdf of the Amicus Brief, here

Columbia Law School’s Law, Rights, and Religion Project and Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP filed an amicus brief yesterday with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in a case that raises the important question of whether employers can use religious liberty arguments to avoid compliance with federal non-discrimination laws. Specifically, it considers whether employers have the right to engage in sex discrimination if motivated by religious principles. The case, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc., was brought on behalf of Aimee Stephens, a funeral home director who was fired after she came out to her employer as a transgender woman.  In an unprecedented decision, the trial court held that the funeral home owner’s religious opposition to Stephens’ gender transition and identity entitled the employer to an exemption from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace.

The District Court’s opinion rested on an interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government—in this case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—from substantially burdening religious practice unless doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. According to the court, the EEOC should have advanced its interest in nondiscrimination in a way that was less burdensome to the employer’s belief that he “would be violating God’s commands if [he] were to permit one of the [Funeral Home’s] funeral directors to deny their sex while acting as a representative of [the Funeral Home].”

PRPCP’s amicus brief explains that the trial court’s interpretation of RFRA is unconstitutional. By requiring Stephens to adhere to her employer’s religious beliefs about gender, the accommodation would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which protects individuals from having to bear the significant costs of a religious belief they do not share. In addition, the accommodation would force the EEOC to participate in—rather than fight against—sex discrimination.

“While federal law provides robust protections to religious liberty, those rights are not absolute,” said Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Faculty Director of The Law, Rights, and Religion Project.  “The right to religious liberty reaches its limit when the accommodation of religious liberty results in the imposition of a material burden on third parties, as is the case here.” 

“The District Court opinion transforms the EEOC from an agency that prohibits discrimination to one that enables and enforces it,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of The Law, Rights, and Religion Project. “If upheld, this decision will devastate one of the country’s most important civil rights protections.”