As LGBT+ protections expand under Title VII, corporate “religious freedoms” are challenged

A wave of US appellate court decisions have expanded interpretations of Title VII under the Civil Rights Act, resulting in expanded protections for LGBT+ workers. Some analysts now wonder whether the rulings are setting up future conflict between the Civil Rights Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993, which gained new prominence when the Supreme Court ruled that closely held religious beliefs could be ascribed to corporations in Hobby Lobby v Burwell (2014).

An outline of the potential conflicts can be seen in the recent case that pitted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against a privately held funeral home company.

Funeral director Aimee Stephens was fired after telling her employer that she would begin transitioning from male to female. The Sixth Circuit appeals court ruled in favor of Stephens, and that discrimination based on transgender status is prohibited under Title VII. The Sixth Circuit was among the first federal courts to expand the interpretation of Title VII to protect LGBT+ employees.

“RFRA isn’t a defense in private litigation,” Omar Gonzalez-Pagan of Lambda Legal told Bloomberg Law. “RFRA by its terms only applies to government action. If you decide to participate in the public marketplace you have to abide by the rules and protections that are in place.”

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