To this day, Tom Rost has kept his grandmother’s Bible.
It’s still important to him. After all, Tom’s grandmother, Flora Harris, taught him how to live a truly Christian life. As a child, Tom lived with his grandparents after his father was drafted into the Navy during World War II.
They “had quite an influence on my life,” said Tom, “living there and being a part of the family there at their home.”
Tom remembers his grandmother volunteering to help run a Christian club for high school students and attending Bible studies for most of her life. He also recalls his grandparents waking up every morning to read devotionals before breakfast.
This breakfast tradition was something Tom carried on with his own kids.
But Tom followed his grandmother’s example in other ways too. He now runs the 100-year-old family business, R.G and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes. And one of his greatest inspirations is Flora, who was one of the first women in Michigan to become a licensed funeral director. As you can imagine, that was quite unique in the 1930s. But Flora was perfectly suited for the job.
Flora was one of those special people who could put anyone at ease. Her calm and reassuring presence helped grieving family members and friends. “Her voice was so gentle, so calm, and so endearing to people,” remembers Tom’s wife, Nancy.
Mrs. Harris always went above and beyond to care for those grieving friends and family. During the Great Depression, Flora and her husband Robert would allow families to pay for funerals with produce if they didn’t have the cash to spare. She also used her attention to detail to make clients feel cared for—even sending out hundreds of Christmas cards every year, each with a personalized message.
Today, as owner and operator of Harris Funeral Homes, Tom looks to his grandmother’s example. Tom follows up with each customer to ask how they are doing and if he can help them in any way. At one point, a widow confided in Tom that she had no way to get to the grocery store. Tom promptly sent one of his employees to buy her groceries.
Tom even pioneered offering a grief counseling program through the funeral home for those who may need it. It is clear that Flora’s gracious care for the grieving lives on through Tom.
“I’ve always admired her,” said Tom of his grandmother. “She had a unique graciousness about her.”
This 100-Year-Old Family Business Is Now under Threat
Today, Tom is facing a challenge to the business his grandmother started and helped build. And it’s all because he wanted to uphold her legacy by providing the best service possible.
Part of what makes Harris Funeral Homes special is that it ensures that those mourning a deceased loved one can focus on processing their grief rather than on the funeral home and its employees. To achieve this, Tom asks each of his employees to agree to a code of conduct and a sex-specific dress code.
One male funeral director agreed to follow the sex-specific dress code at the time of hiring. But in 2013, nearly six years later, that employee announced an intent to start dressing and presenting as a woman while working with grieving families. After carefully considering the needs of the funeral director, other employees, and his clients, Tom couldn’t agree to that. He felt he had no choice but to part ways with the employee. That’s when the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Tom for sex discrimination.
But Tom had been following existing laws that allow small businesses to have sex-specific dress codes. That still didn’t stop the EEOC from taking the law into its own hands by redefining “sex” to mean “gender identity.” The federal government has since changed course and now supports Tom and Harris Funeral Homes, but the ACLU continues the quest to redefine the meaning of “sex” in federal law.
Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Tom's case. And oral arguments are scheduled for October 8.
The decision in this case will not only affect Tom. It will have negative consequences for women and girls. After all, if unelected officials can redefine the meaning of “sex,” it will undermine equal treatment for women like Selina Soule, a female athlete whose opportunity to compete in front of college scouts was taken by two biological males who were allowed to participate in her track events because they believe themselves to be girls. And it would jeopardize the dignity and privacy of women by opening women’s shelters, restrooms, and locker rooms to men who believe themselves to be women.
How ironic. Flora Harris was a trailblazer. Just a decade after women were granted the right to vote, she achieved something very few (if any) women in Michigan had done before: obtain a funeral director’s license. And then Flora helped build the legacy of this fifth-generation family business into what it is today. Today, that same business is being used in a battle to redefine “sex” and hurt the rights of women and girls.
We cannot let that happen.