It is perfectly legal for a conservative Christian business owner to fire a transgender employee simply because the person wants to “dress as a woman.”
That’s what a Michigan district court said in a summary judgment against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued Thursday, ruling that a Baptist, family-owned funeral home had the right to dismiss a former funeral director, Aimee Stephens, who was starting to transition from male to female.
This decision is the latest in a confusing body of rulings about what constitutes sex discrimination in workplaces, which is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s also a powerful reminder of how tenuous transgender rights currently are in the United States. But above all, the reasoning in the decision suggests that the powerful effects of the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby are starting to emerge. While the court’s logic wouldn’t apply to other kinds of discrimination outlawed by Title VII—on the basis of race or national origin, for example—it could apply to future cases of alleged discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
According to the Michigan ruling, which cited Hobby Lobby, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects employers who believe “the Bible teaches that it is wrong for a biological male to deny his sex by dressing as a woman.” Not only do transgender people have no protection against this kind of discrimination under federal law, the court said; if the government forces employers to keep them on in spite of their stated religious beliefs, that places a “substantial burden” on their religious exercise. This is a new kind of ruling, according to Michael Harper, a professor at Boston University, and one that could have far-reaching consequences if other courts follow the same logic.