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5 Things You Should Know About the Harris Funeral Homes Supreme Court Case

Sarah Kramer
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5 Things You Should Know About the Harris Funeral Homes Supreme Court Case

When Tom Rost’s grandparents started R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in 1910, they never could have imagined that their funeral home would one day be at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case.

But that is exactly where it will be on October 8, 2019.

Tom Rost has owned Harris Funeral Homes for over 35 years. His son, Matthew, now works with him, making it a fifth-generation family business. They go to great lengths to make sure their funeral home goes above and beyond to minister to grieving families in the Detroit area.

To do this, Harris Funeral Homes maintains professional codes of dress and conduct to ensure that families focus on processing their grief rather than on the funeral home and its employees. That’s why the funeral home prohibits flashy clothing and has a sex-specific dress code. But that dress code is exactly what landed Harris at the Supreme Court.

In 2013, Harris Funeral Homes parted ways with a male employee, Anthony Stephens, who had worked as a funeral director for six years and wore the men’s suit that the funeral home provided before insisting on dressing and presenting as a woman when working with grieving families.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Harris Funeral Homes, seeking to use this case to redefine “sex” in federal law to mean “gender identity.” While the government has since changed its position, the ACLU is continuing to argue that Harris Funeral Homes must be punished.

For the past six years, this case has been working its way through the courts. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has been representing Harris Funeral Homes, and we filed a brief with the Supreme Court on August 16, 2019.

Here’s what you need to know about this case.

1. Stephens had worked at Harris Funeral Homes for six years.

Harris Funeral Homes hired Stephens in 2007 as a funeral director, a position that serves as the face of the funeral home. Stephens agreed to follow the funeral home’s policies, including the sex-specific dress code, at the time of hire. And Stephens complied with those policies until nearly six years later, when Stephens gave Tom a letter insisting on a plan to dress as a woman when interacting with the grieving families that the funeral home serves.

2. Tom took time to carefully consider Stephens’ request.

Tom did not make the decision to part ways with Stephens lightly. When Tom received Stephens’ letter, he took two weeks to consider and pray about it. Tom considered Stephens and Stephens’s wife and the difficult situation they were walking through. He considered the needs of his female employees – including an 80-year-old woman – who would be sharing the women’s restroom with Stephens. And Tom also considered the interests of the grieving families that Harris Funeral Homes serves – how this would impact the grieving process as well as the privacy of their female guests who would also be using the women’s restroom. Weighing all of these considerations, Tom ultimately decided he could not agree to Stephens’s demand.

3. Federal law permits employers to have sex-specific dress codes.

Small businesses are allowed under the law to differentiate between men and women in their dress codes. Even the EEOC’s compliance manual states that a “dress code may require male employees to wear neckties at all times and female employees to wear skirts or dresses at all times.” Tom and Harris Funeral Homes—and other businesses—should be able to rely on what the law says without fear of government punishment.

4. The federal government has since changed its position and now agrees with Tom and Harris Funeral Homes.

While the EEOC originally sued Tom and Harris Funeral Homes, the federal government has since changed its position in this case and reversed course. The government now agrees with the funeral home that “sex” means biological sex. But the lawsuit is still ongoing as the ACLU continues to push for Harris Funeral Homes to be punished.

5. Redefining “sex” in federal law has far-reaching effects.

Changing the definition of “sex” to mean “gender identity” in federal law has widespread consequences. For one, it would require employers to treat men who perceive themselves to be women as if they are, in fact, women – unless those employees don’t “meet the expectations” of what women “[t]ypically” look like. This is an impossible standard that would force employers to engage in the very stereotypes the law is supposed to prohibit.

Beyond that, changing the meaning of “sex” would greatly impact women and girls. It would allow for women’s scholarships to be given to men who perceive themselves to be women. It would force girls to compete in sports against boys who identify as girls, which denies them a level playing field. And it would force organizations to open women’s shelterslocker rooms, restrooms, and showers to men who perceive themselves to be women.

Ultimately, this case is about much more than a dress code. It’s about whether we, as Americans, are able to rely on what the law says or whether we have to worry that unelected bureaucrats might change the law out from under us and punish us for not anticipating it. If government officials can do that, it has far-reaching implications for us all.

That’s why we are so thankful to Tom and Harris Funeral Homes for taking a stand. Would you join us in praying for them and their legal team as oral arguments at the Supreme Court approach?

Sarah Kramer
Sarah Kramer
Digital Content Specialist
Sarah worked as an investigative reporter before joining the Alliance Defending Freedom team.