Funeral home buries federal govt in Michigan religious freedom case
Attorney sound bite: Doug Wardlow
DETROIT – A federal court ruled Thursday in favor of a Michigan funeral home sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the discharge of an employee who refused to comply with the business’s sex-specific dress code, which requires employees to dress in a manner sensitive to grieving family members and friends. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys represent R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, which has locations in Detroit, Garden City, and Livonia.
The EEOC filed suit against the funeral home to force the business’s owner to allow a biologically male employee to wear a female uniform while interacting with the public, but the court ruled that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects the freedom of the business to maintain a dress code consistent with its sincerely held faith convictions.
“The feds shouldn’t strong-arm private business owners into violating their religious beliefs, and the court has affirmed that here,” said ADF Legal Counsel Doug Wardlow, who argued before the court on Aug. 11. “The government must respect the freedom of those who are seeking to serve the grieving and vulnerable. They shouldn’t be forced into violating their deepest convictions.”
The funeral home hired the biologically male employee as a funeral director and embalmer at its Garden City location in 2007. Funeral directors at the company regularly interact with the public, including grieving family members and friends. After informing the funeral home of an intention to begin dressing as a female at work, the employee was dismissed for refusing to comply with the dress code. The employee was at all times free to dress as desired outside of work but was required to abide by the same dress policy that all employees are required to follow while on the job.
As the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan acknowledged in its opinion and order in the case, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, the company’s sole corporate officer and majority owner, Thomas Rost, is a Christian whose faith informs the way he operates his business and how he presents it to the public. Not only would Rost be violating his faith if he were to pay for and otherwise permit his employees to dress as members of the opposite sex while at work, the employee dress policy is also designed to be sensitive to interaction with customers at an especially delicate time of their lives.
ADF attorneys argued that the funeral home did not violate Title VII, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in employment, and is, in fact, protected by a different federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that the government cannot force someone like Rost to violate his faith unless it demonstrates that doing so is the “least restrictive means” of furthering a “compelling government interest.” The court agreed that the EEOC’s actions violate RFRA.
“The Court finds that the Funeral Home has met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs…,” the court wrote. “Rost sincerely believes that it would be violating God’s commands if he were to permit an employee who was born a biological male to dress in a traditionally female skirt-suit at the funeral home because doing so would support the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift. The Supreme Court has directed that it is not this Court’s role to decide whether those ‘religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial….’ Instead, this Court’s ‘narrow function’ is to determine if this is ‘an honest conviction’ and, as in Hobby Lobby, there is no dispute that it is….”
Preferred Funeral Directors International awarded R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes the Parker Award in 2011 for demonstrating exemplary service, and the Livonia location was voted “best hometown funeral home” in March.
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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