August 27, 2018 at 3:43 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
16 states urge Supreme Court to rule workers can be fired for being trans

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson is leading 16 states in urging the Supreme Court to rule workers can be fired for being trans. (Photo public domain)

A coalition of 16 states led by Nebraska Attorney General Douglas Peterson is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a federal appeals court decision in favor of a fired transgender funeral home worker and determine workers can be terminated for being transgender.

The states filed a friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court last week in response to a petition urging justices to take up and reverse the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, which held anti-trans discrimination is unlawful under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars sex discrimination.

Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBT legal firm, filed the underlying petition seeking Supreme Court review and reversal of the Sixth Circuit decision.

Although the Supreme Court is in recess for the summer and has yet to decide whether to take up the case, the states argue anti-transgender discrimination remains lawful despite the Sixth Circuit ruling on a federal basis.

“Unless and until Congress affirmatively acts, our Constitution leaves to the States the authority to determine which protections, or not, should flow to individuals based on gender identity,” the brief says. “The Sixth Circuit ignored this fact and essentially rewrote federal law, engaging in policy experimentation.”

The brief points to writings from the late U.S. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia to argue Congress didn’t intend to cover transgender people under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars sex discrimination in the workplace.

“The term ‘gender identity’ does not appear in the text of Title VII or in the regulations accompanying Title VII,” the brief says. “In fact, ‘gender identity’ is a wholly different concept from ‘sex,’ and not a subset or reasonable interpretation of the term ‘sex’ in Title VII. The meaning of the terms ‘sex,’ on the one hand, and ‘gender identity,’ on the other, both now and at the time Congress enacted Title VII, forecloses alternate constructions.”

The filing stands in contrast to mountains of case law that determined anti-trans discrimination amounts to sex discrimination is therefore unlawful under Title VII. In fact, many of those courts rulings are based on the Supreme Court decision written in 1998 by Scalia in Oncale v. Sundower Offshore Services, which determined courts should construe protections under Title VII broadly, even in cases of same-sex harassment.

The brief was filed in case involving Aimee Stephens, a transgender worker who was terminated from her position at Harris Funeral Home in Michigan after she announced she would transition on the job. The owners objected to her continued employment, citing religious concerns.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chose to represent Stephens based on its findings in the 2012 case of Macy v. Holder, although the American Civil Liberties Union later took up representation of Stephens.

Although the trial court ruled in favor of the funeral home and found the Religious Freedom Restoration Act permitted Stephens’ termination, the Sixth Circuit reversed that and agreed her termination was illegal under Title VII.

Joining Peterson in signing the brief are attorneys general from Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia
Wyoming as well as the governors of Kentucky, Maine and Mississippi.

Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, condemned the brief in a statement, saying the signers of the filing “are acting in a complete state of ignorance.”

“This brief is a political attack on the humanity of transgender people,” Tobin said. “It ignores decades of law and the realities faced by transgender workers across this country. Ms. Stephens’ case is the textbook definition of sex discrimination, and court after court has already shown this to be true. All Americans deserve a fair shot at their jobs, and the desperation of officials from these 16 states to legalize discrimination is despicable.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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