Continuing our discussion of RFRA and the expansion of (some people’s) “religious liberty”…
File the first paragraph of this article under “The Notorious RBG told you so.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.
The facts are evidently not at issue. Two weeks after the employee notified the employer that she would be beginning to transition, the employer–who owned the funeral home–fired her for “engaging in behavior offensive to his religious beliefs.”
In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”
Lawyers representing the employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability, and a federal court agreed, holding that paying damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs.
Well, yes. That’s the purpose of damages. If I fire an African-American employee simply because he is African-American and my religion teaches that African-Americans are inferior (an argument made by many Southern shopkeepers in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), I have violated his civil rights and I will owe damages that will “burden” that belief.
If I refuse to promote a woman to an executive position for which she is qualified because my religion teaches that women should be submissive, I can be sued for damages that would “burden” my religious beliefs.
Damages are awarded to compensate people who suffer losses when their rights are violated. They are intended to “burden” discriminatory behavior–whatever the motivation.
It’s one thing to exempt churches and religious organizations from laws of general application that are inconsistent with their theologies. It is quite another to say that owners of secular businesses can hire and fire employees or refuse to accommodate customers based upon the religious preferences of the owner.
I find it hard to believe that this court would have reached the same conclusion had the person fired been Jewish or African-American, whatever the employer’s church preached. Although attitudes about LGBTQ Americans have changed dramatically, there is still substantial prejudice against the gay community, and claims of “religious liberty” that would be given short shrift if used to justify discrimination against blacks or women or Jews are somehow seen as more meritorious or “sincere.”
They aren’t. And the likely consequences of this ruling, if it is not overturned, are stunning:
Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.
In her Hobby Lobby dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsberg warned that the Court had ventured into a minefield.
Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.”
She was prescient.