It’s not only lawyers who have been watching the Supreme Court, waiting for a decision in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Everyday Americans are too.
Why? Because the high court’s decision in this case will impact us all. How the Court rules in Harris will decide whether unelected government bureaucrats and courts can redefine “sex” in federal law.
Tom Rost, the owner of Harris Funeral Homes, never asked for any of this. He simply followed employment law as it is written—and was punished for it by a federal agency. He’s just an ordinary father, grandfather, and small business owner who has spent most of his life ministering to grieving families in the Detroit, Michigan area through his family business.
Tom’s number-one concern is aiding those who recently lost a loved one. But since 2013, he’s been forced to battle for his rights in court.
Here are five things to know about the man at the center of the Harris Funeral Homes case.
1. Harris Funeral Homes is a fifth-generation family business.
Harris Funeral homes was founded by Tom’s grandfather and great-grandfather in 1910. Though Tom originally dreamed of working for General Motors and designing cars, he ultimately followed in his grandparents’ footsteps. Tom went to mortuary school and has now been running Harris Funeral Homes for many years.
Though it has changed locations and expanded over time, Harris Funeral Homes’ legacy of ministering to those who are grieving has continued for over 100 years. And it still continues today. Tom’s son Matthew marks the fifth generation of the family to work at the funeral home.
2. Tom treats his employees like family.
Michelle, an employee of Harris Funeral Homes for 15 years, lost both her son and her ex-husband in a short period of time. As she grieved, she had the consolation that Tom and the rest of the staff would care for her. “Tom and the staff here took care of all the details, so I wouldn’t have to – things that I would have had a harder time dealing with,” said Michelle.
Tom looks out for his employees—from being there in difficult times for people like Michelle, to providing them with top-of-the-line training so they can serve grieving families with excellence. “Tom has a way of making every staff member feel like they are part of a family,” says funeral home manager David Cash.
That’s why, when a male funeral director came to Tom with a letter expressing the intent to violate the sex-specific dress code, Tom agonized over it. The letter informed Tom that after nearly six years of employment, the employee planned to begin dressing and presenting as a woman while working with the grieving families Harris Funeral Homes serves.
Tom worried about what this employee must be going through. He was also concerned for other employees, including an 84-year old female employee who would have had to share a women’s restroom with this employee. Tom also considered the needs of the grieving families he serves.
3. Tom cares about the people he serves through Harris Funeral Homes.
Tom sees Harris Funeral Homes as more than just a business; it is an important ministry. He puts in extraordinary effort to make sure those going through the grieving process are well cared for. It starts with excellent service at the funeral home. But it doesn’t stop there.
Tom has innovated the business his grandfather and great-grandfather created to enhance the experience of those he serves. He has employed licensed grief counselors. There is an on-site café for families to gather and remember loved ones. And every Christmas, Harris Funeral Homes hosts an Angel Tree Service for the families they serve, honoring those they lost with angel cutout ornaments.
Tom calls to check on clients months after their relatives pass away. And if they need anything, he’s always ready to lend a helping hand. Tom has even gotten groceries for widows and helped past clients with household projects. For Tom, it’s all about the people Harris Funeral Homes serves.
4. Tom’s dress code is meant to ensure that the focus is on helping the grieving to heal.
One way Tom ensures that grieving families are taken care of is through Harris Funeral Homes’s sex-specific dress code, a part of the business’s professional code of conduct. These policies help ensure that families can focus on the grieving process rather than the funeral home or its staff. The dress code is consistent with industry standards and in accord with federal law, and every employee agrees to follow the dress code upon being hired.
But that policy is at the center of Tom’s Supreme Court case.
After Tom parted ways with the male funeral director who had expressed the intent to dress and present as a woman while interacting with grieving families, the EEOC sued Tom and Harris Funeral Homes for sex discrimination, claiming that “sex” in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act includes “gender identity.” They did this even though Tom was acting in accord with industry standards and existing federal regulations, which allow small businesses to have sex-specific dress codes.
The federal government has since changed its position and now agrees with Tom. But the ACLU has continued to push for the courts to redefine “sex” in federal law to include “gender identity.”
5. Tom and all Americans should be able to rely on what the law says.
Unelected officials cannot unilaterally redefine “sex” in federal law to include “gender identity,” bypassing Congress (which is chosen by the people) to punish a 100-year-old family-owned business.
But that is exactly what the ACLU is asking the Supreme Court to do.
This is a violation of the separation of powers written into our Constitution to protect our individual freedoms. Congress wrote and passed Title VII in 1964, and only Congress has the constitutional authority to change it. In fact, Congress has considered a dozen proposed amendments to Title VII to add “gender identity” as a protected classification. For a broad variety of policy reasons, Congress has rejected every single proposal. Redefining “sex” in federal law has many implications for others, everything from women athletes to women spending the night at a women’s shelter
Government bureaucrats and federal courts cannot rewrite a law when Congress chooses not to do so. The Supreme Court needs to make this clear. All Americans should be able to rely on what the law says—not what unelected officials wish it would say.
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