SCOTUS & Harris Funeral Homes: What Trans People Need to Know

What the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a landmark transgender nondiscrimination case means for you

What is Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC?

Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC is one of the dozens of cases where transgender people who have faced discrimination have won in federal court. In this case, a woman named Aimee Stephens was fired from her job in a Michigan funeral home when, after working there for six years, she disclosed that she was transgender and planned to transition.

With the help of the Equal Employment Opportunity Comission (or EEOC, the federal agency responsible for enforcing workplace nondiscrimination laws), she sued and her case went up to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. And like most courts to have considered the issue over the past two decades, the Sixth Circuit made it clear that firing someone for being transgender is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII, the federal law that prohibits discrimination in the workplace.

The funeral home appealed and asked the Supreme Court to legalize discrimination against transgender people.

What did the Supreme Court announce today?

The Supreme Court announced that it is going to review the case. This means that the Justices will hear arguments from both sides in the coming months and consider whether transgender people are protected from discrimination under sex nondiscrimination laws like Title VII. The Supreme Court will most likely hear arguments this fall and announce its final decision on the case in the summer of 2020, but it’s possible that a decision might come sooner. The Supreme Court also said today that it will separately consider, in two other cases, whether Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Why is this case important?

The Supreme Court’s decision could have a major impact on nondiscrimination protections for transgender people. Right now, even though courts have made it overwhelming clear said that anti-transgender discrimination is a form of illegal sex discrimination, many people are still unsure or confused about whether transgender people are protected.

What might the Supreme Court decide?

There are a few possible outcomes in this case:

SCOTUS Upholds The Lower Court Decision

One possibility is that we’ll have a big win: the Supreme Court could uphold the Sixth Circuit decision and rule in favor of Aimee, confirming that, under existing federal, law, it’s illegal to discriminate against transgender people in the workplace, as well as in schools, housing, and health care. This would be a landmark victory for transgender people nationwide and a historic moment for the history of our country’s civil rights.

SCOTUS Reverses Lower Court Decision

The Supreme Court could also reverse the Sixth Circuit’s decision and say that anti-transgender discrimination is legal in the majority of states that lack explicit protections for transgender people (State nondiscrimination laws that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity would not be affected). That decision could seriously undermine nondiscrimination protections for transgender people — making it more important than ever to pass a law like the Equality Act that leaves no doubt that discrimination is illegal.

SCOTUS Makes A Narrow Ruling For Transgender Rights

The Court could rule that discrimination against transgender people is not automatically illegal, but that in some cases transgender people can show they were discriminated against based on gender stereotypes — leaving the scope of protections uncertain.

SCOTUS Makes a Narrow Ruling Specific to This Case

And finally, it’s possible that the Supreme Court will make a very narrow decision that avoids dealing with the big question of whether anti-transgender discrimination is illegal. For example, it might make a decision on some procedural ground specific to the case of Aimee Stephens. It could also or make a decision about just a minor issue in the case while leaving the door open for other anti-transgender discrimination cases to come to the Supreme Court in the future.

What if my state has a law explicitly prohibiting discrimination against transgender people?

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules in this case, the 21 states who currently have explicitly inclusive non-discrimination laws will be unaffected and those laws will remain in place. For the 29 states without such explicit laws, however, many transgender people will find it harder to challenge discrimination under federal law — making those state laws all the more important to fight for.

How might this case impact anti-transgender attacks by the Trump administration?

The Trump administration has taken every opportunity it could to tell the Supreme Court that it thinks that anti-LGBTQ discrimination should be legal, including in this case. We can expect the Trump administration to continue to urge the Supreme Court to rule that transgender people like Aimee should not be protected from discrimination under Title VII federal law.

The Trump administration desperately needs the Supreme Court to agree, since they’ve been using the argument that transgender people aren’t protected from discrimination to justify attack after attack on transgender people’s civil rights, like rolling back the transgender student guidance or going after lifesaving health care protections for transgender people. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Aimee, that probably won’t stop those attacks entirely., But it would make it much harder for the Trump administration to push them forward, and it would give us an extremely powerful tool to use when we fight back.

So what happens now?

This fall, the Supreme Court will hear arguments from both sides and make a decision, likely by the summer of 2020. Before that time, we also expect the new pro-equality majority of the House of Representatives to vote on The Equality Act, a nationwide bill that would provide explicit federal protections for the LGBTQ community for the first time.

If passed, the Equality Act would protect transgender people from discrimination in employment, housing, education, public accommodations, credit, jury service, and federally-funded programs such as Medicare and Medicaid — regardless of what the Supreme Court or the Trump administration says. The Supreme Court could also decide to take up a review of President Trump’s reckless ban on transgender military service members.

In the meantime, conversations about Aimee Stephens’s landmark case are going to be happening all across the country — making this a critical moment to share our stories and help Americans understand who transgender people are and why civil right protections are so important. If you are interested in sharing your story — either as a transgender person or as the loved one of a transgender person — sign up for our Voices for Trans Equality network and our Families for Trans Equality network.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules in this case or any case, we know the best tool we have in this fight is your voice. You can make a difference — and we can help.