Tom Rost owns Harris Funeral Homes, with locations in the Detroit, Michigan area. When he chose to follow in his family’s legacy of serving mourning families, he never expected that acting in compliance with the law would bring him before the U.S. Supreme Court.
For more than 100 years, Tom’s family has helped the grieving heal. As he explains it, Harris Funeral Homes “has survived two world wars, the Great Depression and a decades-long economic downturn” in Detroit. But his American heritage extends even further back: “One of my ancestors—14 generations before—came here as a minister on the Mayflower.”
At just 18 years old, Tom’s grandfather took to a horse-drawn hearse to help serve mourning families. His grandmother was one of the first female licensed funeral directors in Michigan.
Tom has been a devout Christian for more than 65 years, and he has served at Harris Funeral Homes for more than 50. To him, it is not simply a business; it is a way of life. His purpose is “to minister to the grieving.” In fact, Harris’s mission statement confirms that the company’s “highest priority is to honor God in all that [they] do as a company and as individuals.”
Carrying on the legacy of innovation and care set by his predecessors, Tom employs licensed grief counselors, has an on-site café for families to gather and remember loved ones, and holds an Angel Tree Service for grieving families each Christmas in which angel cutout ornaments are given to each bereaved family Harris served during the year.
Tom’s faith instructs him to love his neighbor—through good times and bad. One of his employees describes working at the funeral home as providing “quiet dignity with compassion” to the individuals and families who walk through Harris Funeral Homes during some of the darkest days of their lives.
Tom’s ministry to the grieving embodies St. Benedict’s motto of ora et labora—“pray and work.” Dr. Steven Garber describes this Benedictine practice as “a life where praying and working were held together, to be done as one life.” For Tom, there is no separation between his life’s mission and his faith. They are held as one.
Every decision Tom makes is meant to serve those who come to Harris Funeral Homes broken and downtrodden from grief. He wants the funeral home to be a space where the grieving can focus on healing. Thus, he wants his employees to fade into the background.
That’s why Tom maintains a sex-specific dress code, in accord with federal law. But that dress code has taken Tom and Harris Funeral Homes all the way to the Supreme Court.
In 2013, a male funeral director approached Tom and expressed the intent to begin dressing and presenting as a woman while interacting with grieving families at work. This funeral director had worked at Harris Funeral Homes for nearly six years and had followed the dress code since he was hired.
Tom prayed and considered what this meant for the funeral director, the funeral director’s family, his other employees, and the families that Harris Funeral Homes serves. Ultimately, Tom decided he could not agree to the funeral director’s plan.
The funeral director then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which launched a lawsuit against Tom and Harris Funeral Homes for sex discrimination – claiming that the federal prohibition against “sex” discrimination in employment includes “gender identity.” While the federal government has reversed its position and now agrees with Tom, the ACLU has continued to move this case forward.
Tom’s case could have widespread consequences for every American.
If Tom loses the Supreme Court redefines “sex” in federal law to include “gender identity,” women and girls’ safety, privacy, dignity, and equal opportunities will be threatened. Employers like Tom will not be able to rely on what the law says. Those who believe there are two distinct sexes, male and female, will be forced by law to use pronouns inconsistent with a person’s sex. Not to mention the chaos it would cause in our legal system, with unelected government officials being allowed to rewrite federal law—binding in all 50 states—on a whim.
In October, ADF argued on Tom’s behalf before the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to uphold the original meaning of “sex” in federal law. We are awaiting the court’s decision.
Tom could have never imagined that acting in compliance with existing law—and serving the best interests of grieving families—would land him before our nation’s highest court. We pray the Supreme Court will allow Tom to continue to minister to the mourning in his midst without having to fear government punishment.
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