December 1, 2020 at 10:06 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Funeral home to pay $250K after firing Aimee Stephens for being transgender
Harris Funeral Homes must pay $250K over the landmark case brought by Aimee Stephens.(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Harris Funeral Homes, which fired the late Aimee Stephens for being transgender and led her to sue the business in litigation that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, must pay $250,000 as a result of a settlement stemming from the landmark case affirming anti-transgender discrimination is illegal under the law.

U.S. District Judge Sean Cox in Michigan, the George W. Bush-appointed judge who adjudicated the case after the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the court, signed the consent decree on Monday, bringing a case to an end that had been rising up in the judiciary for more than six years.

Under the consent decree, Harris Funeral Homes in Michigan must pay a sum of $130,000 to Stephens’ spouse, Donna Stephens, for back pay, interest and compensatory damagers. The other $120,000 goes to the American Civil Liberties Union in attorney fees for acting as intervenor in the case.

Further, the agreement enjoins Harris Funeral Homes from firing workers on the basis of transgender status and from giving employees unequal clothing allowances on the basis of the sex. Thomas Rost, the owner Harris Funeral Homes, has asserted in initial stages of legislation having to buy Stephens a women’s business uniform violated his religious beliefs, although that claim was dropped when the case reached the Supreme Court.

Dale Price, trial attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which represented Stephens in court, said in a statement the law is clear after the Supreme Court ruling in her favor.

“The law is now clear that discrimination against an employee because of his or her transgender status is sex discrimination,” Price said. “Employers also cannot discriminate on the basis of sex with regard to providing employees with clothing benefits.”

As a result of Stephens case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June anti-transgender discrimination in the workplace is a form of sex discrimination, thus illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Her case was consolidated with Bostock v. Clayton County, which reached a similar determination with anti-gay discrimination, thus making anti-LGBTQ discrimination illegal in employment under federal law.

Stephens, however, who was in bad health, didn’t live to see the decision from the Supreme Court. She died in May 2020, just weeks before justices rendered their decision in Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC.

Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice with the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, said in a statement to the Washington Blade the agreement means Stephens will obtain justice posthumously for all transgender people.

“Today marks a closing chapter in Aimee Stephens’s remarkable fight for justice,” Strangio said. “We are sad that Aimee is not here to experience this moment with her wife Donna and grateful for all that Aimee, Donna and the many trans fighters for justice and their families have done to bring us to this place. As Aimee always said, this fight is about more than just her and it will stretch far beyond this case.”

The landmark decision not only ensures anti-LGBTQ discrimination is unlawful in the workplace, but also under any law that bars sex discrimination, such civil rights law for housing, education, health care and credit and jury service. Areas of civil rights without bans on sex discrimination, however, such as federal programs and public accommodations, aren’t covered by the decision.

Strangio called for passage of the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to expand the prohibition on anti-LGBTQ discrimination even further, to recognize of the legacy of Stephens.

“The Biden administration must make it clear that across all areas of federal law sex discrimination protections apply to LGBTQ people and Congress must pass the Equality Act to close critical gaps in our civil rights laws that leave so many LGBTQ people, women, and many people of color vulnerable to discrimination,” Strangio said. “We will honor Aimee’s legacy by continuing her fight for country where all trans and non-binary people belong and feel safe.”

Alliance Defending Freedom, the anti-LGBTQ legal firm that represented Harris Funeral Homes, didn’t respond Tuesday to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the consent decree.

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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