Courtroom interior_newWritten by Don Byrd

A federal judge in Michigan, applying the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), dismissed a case of sex stereotyping discrimination brought against a funeral home by the EEOC under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. According to the court, the agency failed to demonstrate that its method of enforcing the suit was the “least restrictive” way (as required under RFRA) to achieve the goal of “protecting employees from gender stereotyping in the workplace.”

This case was brought by the EEOC on behalf of a transgender woman who was fired from her job at a funeral home after she announced to the owner that she would be undergoing surgery to transition from male to female and would be wearing female-appropriate attire to comply with the company’s dress code. The court agreed with the EEOC that the owner engaged in sex-stereotyping discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, but found that the particular enforcement of that provision in this case was an unlawful infringement of the owner’s religious freedom rights under RFRA.

That ruling gained national attention over the weekend and into this week, adding fuel to the broader controversy surrounding the potential for conflict between religious freedom protections for business owners on one hand and anti-discrimination protections for customers or, as in this case, employees, on the other. As usual with controversial RFRA rulings, it’s helpful I think to step back and get a clear picture of what, particularly, the court did and did not say.

Most importantly, the court did not rule that religious freedom objections outweigh sex stereotyping discrimination claims generally. That is not how RFRA works. RFRA requires the court to consider such conflicts individually, as a unique set of facts, through a process of analysis that asks certain questions of each side. Here, the case was dismissed because the court found the government (more specifically, the EEOC) failed to demonstrate one key element of its claim: that there is no other way, less burdensome to the religious exercise in question, of achieving its goal.

Here is a key excerpt from the court’s ruling explaining what it deemed to be the determining factor here:

If the EEOC truly has a compelling governmental interest in ensuring that Stephens is not subject to gender stereotypes in the workplace in terms of required clothing at the Funeral Home, couldn’t the EEOC propose a gender-neutral dress code (dark-colored suit, consisting of a matching business jacket and pants, but without a neck tie) as a reasonable accommodation that would be a less restrictive means of furthering that goal under the facts presented here? Both women and men wear professional-looking pants and pants-suits in the workplace in this country, and do so across virtually all professions.

But the EEOC has not even discussed the possibility of any such accommodation or less restrictive means as applied to this case. Rather, the EEOC takes the position that Stephens must be allowed to wear a skirt-suit in order to express Stephens’s female gender identity. That is, the EEOC wants Stephens to be able to dress in a stereotypical feminine manner. If the compelling governmental interest is truly in removing or eliminating gender stereotypes in the workplace in terms of clothing (i.e., making gender “irrelevant”), the EEOC’s manner of enforcement in this action (insisting that Stephens be permitted to dress in a stereotypical feminine manner at work) does not accomplish that goal.

Whether the judge in this case applied RFRA properly, especially in the context of Title VII enforcement actions, or reached the right outcome in this particular case, is a question that may be adjudicated in later appeals, and is already the subject of discussion among legal scholars and advocates. I am posting this rather narrow look at the court’s ruling neither to defend nor to question it, but to remind that it’s very difficult, and usually inaccurate, to extrapolate outcomes from one RFRA case to other religious freedom conflicts.

The federal RFRA law provides a framework for analysis of individual religious freedom disputes. It is not a trump card for those who object to government regulations on religious grounds.