The chair-elect of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists joined 74 other faith leaders and religious and civil-rights organizations in a legal brief filed April 24 supporting a former transgender funeral home employee in Michigan who claimed she was fired because of her gender transition.
The brief filed in the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by attorneys representing Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Anti-Defamation League sides with Aimee Stephens, who is seeking to revive the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 2014 lawsuit claiming RG & GR Harris Funeral Home unlawfully fired her after she underwent sex-reassignment surgery.
The U.S. Eastern District Court of Michigan threw out the claim, finding the funeral home owner — a lifelong Christian who according to court documents believes “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex” — was exempt from anti-discrimination requirements of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The lower court cited precedent from Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that for the purposes of RFRA, a closely held corporation like the arts and crafts retail chain qualifies as a person protected from undue burdens on religious exercise.
Monday’s friend-of-the-court brief argues that while RFRA “provides important safeguards for religious exercise,” it does not and cannot “upend all employment-discrimination law.” The groups and clergy said the lower court’s interpretation gives employers a broad “license to engage in unlawful and invidious discrimination through a simple expedient: describing their discrimination as religiously based.”
“Employers could prohibit employees from becoming pregnant out of wedlock, refuse to place women in managerial positions or require employees to wear the symbols of the employer’s religion — and fire those who do not comply,” the brief argues.
Individual clergy joining the brief include David Key, chair-elect of AWAB, a network of churches and individuals from various Baptist traditions supporting LGBTQ equality in the church and society originally started by congregations marginalized by policy statements of American Baptist Churches USA in the early 1990s.
“As a Baptist who has been taught our history of defending religious freedom, it is sad to see the term ‘religious liberty’ be hijacked by those who seek to discriminate against others,” said Key, former director of Baptist studies at Candler School of Theology and founding pastor of Lake Oconee Community Church in Greensboro, Ga. “If they are ultimately successful it will be very damaging for people of faith.”
Other Baptist signers include Chris O’Rear, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-endorsed pastoral counselor in Nashville, Tenn. O’Rear, a 1994 graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Sunday school teacher at Nashville’s First Baptist Church, told Baptist News Global he isn’t representing any organization and was “signing out of my own personal convictions.”
Aimee Stephens worked for nearly six years as funeral director/embalmer for the funeral home under the name Anthony Stephens until 2013. While on vacation Stephens wrote a letter disclosing a “gender identity disorder that I have struggled with my entire life” and notified her employer she intended to have sex reassignment surgery and “return to work as my true self, Aimee Australia Stephens, in appropriate business attire.”
The funeral home claimed the firing was not because Stephens is transgender but because wearing a skirt to work violated a company dress code requiring men to wear a suit and tie. The district court rejected her claim of sex discrimination, because transgender status and gender identity “are not protected classes” enumerated in Title VII.
Earlier this month the Seventh U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Title VII’s definition of “sex” does in fact cover sexual orientation and gender identity, disagreeing with other courts and setting up a likely showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court.
“As one who has been a long-term supporter of eliminating gender barriers in ministry, it is time for us to incorporate gender identity into that movement,” Key said in comments to Baptist News Global.