Screen Shot 2016 08 22 at 10.05.08 AM 300x134 Another Random Act of Justice

The R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home, Garden City, Michigan

For people of normal conscience, the death of a loved one is a deeply painful time. For those of us who have had to make funeral arrangements for loved ones, it is a stressful time. But imagine the discomfort as you make funeral arrangements to realize that the funeral director is a male wearing female clothing. While it could make for an awkward and amusing episode of the Jamie Kennedy Experiment, but for many people such a real-life scenario could be deeply upsetting. But this was the case at a Livonia, Michigan, funeral home that required its employees to dress in a sex-specific dress code in order to be sensitive to grieving family members and friends. However, the Obama Administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed suit on behalf of an employee who refused to comply with the dress code of R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes. In its dress code, the funeral home required that biologically male employees wear male clothing, rather than be allowed to wear a female clothing while interacting with the public. The R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home was founded in 1910, and is now operated in its fourth generation.

In 2007, the funeral home hired a biologically male employee as a funeral director and embalmer at its Garden City, Michigan, facility. Funeral directors and embalmers at the company interact regularly with the public, and especially with grieving family members and friends. But after informing the funeral home of his intention to dress as a female at work, the employee was dismissed for refusing to comply with the sex-specific dress code. Of course, the employee was free to dress as he/she desired outside of work, but was required to abide by the same dress policy that all employees were required to follow while on the job. But on its never-ending quest towards utopia, the Obama Administration took up the fired employee’s cause.

The majority owner of the funeral homes, Thomas Rost, is a Christian whose faith informs the way he operates his business and how he presents his funeral homes to the general public. Mr. Rost believes that he would violate his Christian faith if he were to permit his employees to dress as members of the opposite sex while at work, but the employee dress policy was also designed to be sensitive to interaction with customers at these particularly difficult times of their lives. (Have you ever wondered why these incidents never seem to occur at a Moslem-owned Mustafa’s Stairway To Paradise Funeral Home in Dearborn, Michigan? But I digress.)

Normally, of course, in these type of situations, Christians always lose. But Mr. Rost was represented by Doug Wardlow, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom (“ADF”). Mr. Wardlow argued that the funeral home did not violate Title VII, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in employment. Rather, he argued that Mr. Rost was protected by a different federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), which says that the government cannot force someone like Mr. Rost to violate his faith unless it demonstrates that doing so is the “least restrictive means” of furthering a “compelling government interest.” The infamous American Civil Liberties Union and its local partner, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, also filed briefs in this case against the funeral home owner.

In a seemingly random act of justice, last Thursday, a federal court in eastern Michigan agreed with Mr. Rost that the EEOC’s actions violated RFRA. In his 56-page Opinion and Order (should it really take 56 pages for this type of case?), available here, Judge Sean F. Cox, a President George W. Bush appointee, wrote the following:

The Court finds that the Funeral Home has met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs . . . Rost sincerely believes that it would be violating God’s commands if he were to permit an employee who was born a biological male to dress in a traditionally female skirt-suit at the funeral home because doing so would support the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift. The Supreme Court has directed that it is not this Court’s role to decide whether those ‘religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial….’ Instead, this Court’s ‘narrow function’ is to determine if this is ‘an honest conviction’ and, as in Hobby Lobby, there is no dispute that it is….

Wow, truly a random act of justice! Kudos to Mr. Wardlow and the ADF! And for my readers in Michigan, in a shameless, unpaid commercial plug, Preferred Funeral Directors International awarded R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes the Parker Award in 2011 for demonstrating exemplary service, and the Livonia, Michigan, location was voted the “Best Hometown Funeral Home” in March 2016. This is a big win for religious liberty, but please remember that this is another clear example that elections have consequences, even decades later.