Funeral Industry News

Funeral Home Transgender Discrimination Case Heads to Supreme Court

September 17, 2019

Funeral Home Transgender Discrimination Case Heads to Supreme Court

It’s been six years since Anthony Stephens wrote a letter to his boss and coworkers at R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes announcing his intention to return to work after a two-week vacation as his “true self,” Aimee Stephens, a transgender female. 

Stephens, who for years had lived openly as a transgender woman in her personal life, wrote that she had “felt imprisoned in a body that does not match my mind, and this has caused great despair and loneliness. With the support of my loving wife, I have decided to become the person that my mind already is.”

Battles in a long war

After reading the letter, Stephens’ boss Thomas Rost responded simply, “Okay.” He folded the letter and put it in his pocket. Two weeks later, Rost fired Stephens, saying, “This isn’t going to work.”

That action was the start of an arduous journey for Stephens, Rost, and Harris Funeral Homes. Thomas Rost is the owner and manager of five Detroit, Michigan area locations of R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes. Rost’s son Matthew is the fourth generation of funeral directors to work in the business, which was founded in 1910. 

In July 2013, when she wrote her letter, Stephens had worked as a funeral director at Harris’ Garden City, Michigan location for six years.  

Rost terminated Stephens on a Friday, and on the following Monday she contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU helped Stephens file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC sued Harris Funeral Homes for violating Title VII and the ACLU joined the suitTitle VII, a law within the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits employment discrimination based on sex. 

A federal judge originally ruled the funeral home did not violate Title VII, However, the Sixth District Court of Appeals later ruled in favor of Stephens. Rost and his attorneys then asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

A dress code issue?

Next month, the Supreme Court will decide if Title VII includes transgender individuals. Rost’s attorneys argue that in 1964 when the law was enacted, a person’s self-identified gender identity was not considered a protected class. They also assert that Stephens was fired because “he wanted to dress like a woman.”

In her 2013 letter, Stephens wrote that when she returned to work she would do so “in appropriate business attire.” The funeral home’s dress code required females to wear a “skirt-suit.” Breaking Harris’ dress code is a fireable offense.

According to The Detroit News, an attorney representing Harris Funeral Homes said Rost “would have responded to a female employee who insisted on dressing as a man while working with grieving families the same way it handled Stephens, so it was not favoring one sex over another.”

The aftermath

Since the termination, Stephens has suffered serious medical issues and struggled financially. Although she had worked in the funeral industry for decades, having a different name on past employment records hindered her. Stephens retired in 2014 after kidney failure.

The Supreme Court’s decision will have implications for transgender people in any workplace, as well as in schools, housing, and healthcare. The Alliance For Defending Freedom, whose attorneys represent Rost, believe that “redefining the definition of sex” will undermine equal treatment for women and girls. 

How will the highest court’s decision affect your funeral home? Would you amend your dress code based on this case? Or have you done so already?