Tom Rost is the current owner of Harris Homes, a family-owned, Detroit-area chain of funeral homes. Rost’s grandfather and great-grandfather started the business in 1910, and passed it on to Rost’s father, who passed it on to him. Rost is also a devout Christian.
In 2013 a male employee named Stephens, one of Rost’s funeral directors, informed Rost that he “identified as” a woman, and would undergo surgery at some point to aid in his transition to a new “gender identity” as a woman. Stephens also demanded the right to wear women’s clothing on the job.
Rost was stunned. In dealing with grieving clients at perhaps the most vulnerable point in their lives, he wants his employees to respect those clients by dressing appropriately and performing their duties in a professional manner. That included suits for men and skirt suits for women.
And as a Christian, Rost believes God’s view that the male and female sexes are biblically ordained, not chosen according to one’s feelings. Rost also worried that Stephens would demand to use the women’s restroom with other female employees and clients. With a heavy heart, Rost informed Stephens that he must conform to the male dress code for the business, but if he could not, Rost also offered Stephens a generous severance package.
Stephens rejected both the men’s dress code and the severance package. Instead, he went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which filed a federal lawsuit against Rost’s business. In the five years of litigation since then, Rost won his case at the district court level in 2016, then lost on appeal at the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in March 2018, and now the U.S. Supreme Court will be considering whether or not to accept Rost’s appeal at its weekly conference on November 30.
I had the opportunity to ask Rost about his faith journey over the last five years as he’s dealt with the full weight of the federal government coming down on him. “The first couple years were very emotional and traumatic,” he told me. “You can’t see the long-term possibilities and the big picture.” His perspective began to change, however, after his initial victory in federal district court when he got an out-of-the-blue phone call from Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, who now heads both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian international relief organization.
“He congratulated me on our victory in court, and told me that he supported me and was praying for me,” Rost marveled. “That’s when I realized that to win a case like this is such a big deal for the Christian community, which has lost so much in recent years. Like maybe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he added.
Initially, when the EEOC sued him, Rost felt alone. “It’s just you and nobody else,” he said, referring to that moment when you have no idea what to do next. Then his daughter suggested he call Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the religious freedom public interest law firm that has racked up numerous Supreme Court victories on behalf of Christians, including Jack Phillips, the victorious baker in last June’s blockbuster decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Rost was familiar with ADF, but wasn’t sure they would take his case. And he had also been approached by a high-powered Chicago law firm that indicated they were interested in his case. Perhaps they were big enough to take on the federal government, Rost thought.
But when the big law firm decided not to represent Rost, he turned to prayer. As he was driving down a highway and seeking the Lord’s will about his situation, God reminded him of the Old Testament story of Gideon and his army. The Lord told him that he didn’t need the big law firm to take on the United States government. Rost still remembers clearly what he heard in that moment: “God told me: One person, with God, can take on the U.S. government and have a full team.” He was so overcome with emotion that he had to pull over to the side of the road.
Of course ADF did end up representing Rost and partnering with well-known Supreme Court litigator John Bursch. Currently the team is preparing to represent Rost before the high court, should his case be accepted. If the justices vote to take the case at their November 30 private conference, we could see oral arguments in the spring and a decision by the end of June, 2019.
So what has Rost learned in the last five years that he can pass on to other believers going through difficult times? He suggests you embrace your weakness and trust in God. “You get so used to being dependent on God, you don’t want that to go away,” he said. “The valleys have to be long, or you don’t get the full impact. It takes time to hear Him speak to you, two years or more in my case. We get distracted so easily. You have to be on your face before the Lord for a long time.”
Rost requests that Christians pray that the Supreme Court will accept his case.
“God has a plan, and His plan is perfect.”