“What I must tell you is very difficult for me and is taking all the courage I can muster,” she wrote to her colleagues. “I have felt imprisoned in a body that does not match my mind, and this has caused me great despair and loneliness.”
Ms. Stephens had worked at the funeral home for six years. Her colleagues testified that she was able and compassionate.
Two weeks after receiving the letter, the home’s owner, Thomas Rost, fired Ms. Stephens. Asked for the “specific reason that you terminated Stephens,” Mr. Rost said: “Well, because he was no longer going to represent himself as a man. He wanted to dress as a woman.”
The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled for Ms. Stephens. Discrimination against transgender people, the court said, was barred by Title VII.
“It is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex,” the court said, adding, “Discrimination ‘because of sex’ inherently includes discrimination against employees because of a change in their sex.”
All three cases will turn on how the justices interpret the 1964 civil rights law. There is little dispute that the lawmakers who enacted it did not specifically contemplate that it would apply to gay and transgender people. But the words they chose, the plaintiffs say, logically cover L.G.B.T. people.
There is a second issue in the cases. In 1989, the Supreme Court said discrimination against workers because they did not conform to gender stereotypes was a form of sex discrimination. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say that discrimination against gay and transgender people relies on such stereotypes.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that Title VII protects gay and transgender people, but the Trump administration took a contrary view in the Supreme Court. Sex discrimination, lawyers for the administration said, applies only to biological sex.