Last month we told you about corporations being able to sue if they were victims of race discrimination. This month, we learned of a case out of Michigan holding that corporations can claim “sincere religious beliefs” that justify discriminating against transgender employees.
In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home, a federal judge ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) empowers a for-profit corporation to terminate an employee for transitioning from a man into a woman. According to the court, the employer demonstrated that its religious belief that gender is “an immutable God-given gift” would be “substantially burden[ed],” if the funeral home were required to employ a transgender worker. The district court’s ruling extended the reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (2014), holding that a privately held corporation can be a protected “person” under RFRA.
The Michigan decision is unprecedented and raises difficult questions as to whose civil rights are more important — those of the employee protected from discrimination based on sexual stereotypes, or those of the employer, claiming religious beliefs. What if a corporation claims a “sincerely held religious belief” that disfavors disabled persons, older workers, or racial minorities? Would the court then allow discrimination against employees in those categories?
We shall see. In any event, privately held companies with religiously active owners can be expected to assert more RFRA rights and religious defenses in the future. For a related discussion of state religious freedom laws at work, please see the attached American Bar Association paper that I co-presented at the Employment Rights and Responsibilities Committee meeting this spring.
Michael Homans is a Labor & Employment attorney and founding partner of HomansPeck LLC. For more employment law updates, including news and links to important information pertaining to legal developments that may affect your business, subscribe to Michael’s blog, or follow him on Twitter @EmployLawUpdate.