SCOTUS hears employment discrimination cases

by | Oct 8, 2019

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, as well as two other employment cases. Harris involves a transgender woman’s claim that her firing violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sex.

Funeral home owner Thomas Rost testified that he fired employee Aimee Stephens because of her decision to no longer dress and present as a man, which Rost said conflicted with his customers’ expectations and also with his own religious beliefs.

As BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman explains, the question the justices agreed to consider focuses on interpreting civil rights law:

The trio of cases before the Supreme Court today focus on the statutory meaning of an antidiscrimination provision in Title VII, the federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment “because of … sex.” The case does not involve any discrimination claim based on religion or any exemptions for religious employers.

Religious liberty arguments did play a part in lower courts’ consideration of this case. Rost argued previously that his religious freedom rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) would be violated by enforcement of the nondiscrimination law against the business here. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, rejected that claim. The court explained that requiring a funeral home to tolerate an employee’s sex and gender identity is not a substantial burden on his religious exercise, and that even if it was, the government has “a compelling interest in eradicating discrimination.” The appeals court also denied the funeral home’s claim that it qualifies as a religious institution eligible for the “ministerial exception.” Just because the business claims as a part of its mission to further a religious aim does not make it a religious institution under the law, the 6th Circuit held.

In requesting review by the Supreme Court, however, the funeral home did not raise the RFRA arguments.