In a powerful victory for religious freedom against the overreach of the Obama administration, a judge upheld the rights of a funeral home owner to express his religious beliefs by insisting on a Christian view of gender.
Michigan funeral home owner Thomas Rost “sincerely believes that God has called him to serve grieving people. He sincerely believes that his ‘purpose in life is to minister to the grieving, and his religious faith compels him to do that important work,'” explained U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox in his opinion on the case, issued last week. Rost sincerely believes that the “Bible teaches that a person’s sex (whether male or female) is an immutable God-given gift and that it is wrong for that person to deny his or her God-given sex.”
But funeral director Anthony Stephens, who had worked at the funeral home for six years, gave Rost a letter in July 2013. Despite his biological sex as a man, he really identified as a woman, and he announced that he would be coming to work after a vacation dressed as a woman. Rost decided to fire Stephens, because employing a transgender person serving in such a public capacity would harm his witness and violate his conscience.
The Obama administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Rost in June 2014. It alleged that Aimee Australia Stephens (the ex-employee’s new chosen name) “was discharged due to her sex and gender identity, female, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Once again, the Obama administration had decided to read the Civil Rights Act — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of “sex” — as if it were intended to protect transgender people from discrimination. But sex, both now and in 1964, means biological sex, while transgender identity is not protected by the law.
More important in this case, however, is the fact that the EEOC ordered Rost to alter his funeral home’s policies regarding transgender identity. This violated his religious freedom rights under the First Amendment.
Judge Cox explained:
Rost believes that he “would be violating God’s commands if [he] were to permit one of the [Funeral Home’s] funeral directors to deny their sex while acting as a representative of [the Funeral Home]. This would violate God’s commands because, among other reasons, [he] would be directly invovled in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.” Rost believes that “the Bible teaches that it is wrong for a biological male to deny his sex by dressing as a woman.”
Furthermore, “if Rost ‘were forced as the owner of [the Funeral Home] to violate [his] sincerely held religious beliefs by paying for or otherwise permitting one of [his] employees to dress inconsistent with his or her biological sex, [Rost] would feel significant pressure to sell [the] business and give up [his] life’s calling of ministering to grieving people as a funeral home director and owner.”
No business owner should be put in that position, especially when he runs the business “as a ministry to serve grieving families while they endure some of the most trying times in their lives.”
Next Page: How the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) defended Rost, and why his decision to fire Stephens was not discrimination.
The United States Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed in 1993, established a strict standard for government violations of religious freedom: the government must provide a compelling government interest and demonstrate that its demands are the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
Judge Cox explained that the EEOC’s stated compelling interest would be “protecting employees from gender stereotyping in the workplace,” but that even if this were a “compelling government interest,” the agency has not presented the least restrictive means of achieving it.
“If the compelling interest is truly in eliminating gender stereotypes, the Court fails to see why the EEOC couldn’t propose a gender-neutral dress code as a reasonable accommodation that would be a less restrictive means of furthering that goal,” Cox wrote. “But the EEOC has not even discussed such an option, maintaining that Stephens must be allowed to wear a skirt-suit in order to express Stephens’s gender identity.”
Rather than asking for a protection against forced gender stereotypes, the EEOC appears to be requesting the validation of a gender stereotype expressly at odds with this religious business owner’s conscience.
While the EEOC demands Rost accept its view of the gender, the business owner himself has shown great reasonableness in dealing with the issue. He explained that funeral directors (such as Stephens was) are the most “prominent public representatives” of the funeral home and are “the face that [the funeral home] presents to the world.”
Nevertheless, Ross said he “would not have dismissed Stephens if Stephens had expressed [to Rost] a belief that he is a woman and an intent to dress or otherwise present as a woman outside of work, so long as he would have continued to conform to the dress code for male funeral directors while at work.” Rost was not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, he was merely concerned about his business coming across as pro-transgender in a public way.
“It was Stephens’s refusal to wear the prescribed uniform and intent to violate the dress code while at work that was the decisive consideration in [his] employment decision,” Rost’s affidavit explained.
This distinction may seem trivial to LGBT activists, but it is very important. The funeral home owner did not object to having a transgender person on his staff, just as Christian bakeries like the one owned by Aaron and Melissa Klein did not object to selling cakes and various other goods to lesbian and gay customers.
Next Page: The crucial difference between religious freedom and discrimination.
It is only when a business is asked to take public involvement in certain cultural issues that Christian business owners have complained. When the Kleins declined to bake a special cake for a lesbian wedding, they did so because that would send the public message that they endorsed that union as a marriage. When Rost fired Stephens, it was because sending him/her out as a funeral director — biologically male but dressed as a woman — would have sent the message that he didn’t believe in biblical sexuality.
Rost has been a Christian for over sixty-five years, as Cox reported. For a time, he was on the deacon board of Highland Park Baptist Church. He also serves on the board of the Detroit Salvation Army, and has done so for 15 years. Christianity is not an excuse for him to discriminate, it is the very bedrock of his life and work.
This is what so many LGBT activists fail to understand: it is not fear or hate that leads Christians to oppose supporting the homosexual and transgender lifestyles, but a firm belief in the truths of scripture. Christians celebrate sexuality as a gift of God, and acknowledge Jesus’ words about men and women coming together to form “one flesh.”
Acknowledging these truths does not mean Christians are judging everyone else — we each know our sins, and the apostle Paul famously declared himself the worst of sinners. But our beliefs are fundamentally incompatible with the celebration of homosexuality and transgenderism in popular culture, and we need to be able to live according to our convictions.
We do not ask for carte blanche to discriminate against people, only that government not violate our consciences by forcing us to water down our public witness. Hopefully, the case of Thomas Rost will help explain this crucial difference, but it would take nothing short of an act of God to bring the ever-increasing attacks on religious freedom to a long overdue end.