Key point. Churches that dismiss or discipline employees for reporting suspected illegal activity by another church worker may have violated whistleblower protections under federal or state law.
A federal court in California ruled that a woman whose employment at a church was allegedly terminated because of her disclosure of potentially illegal activity by the church treasurer could sue her church for violation of a state policy barring employers from retaliating against "whistleblowers." A church hired a woman (the "plaintiff") as a clerical worker, and a few years later promoted her to the position of administrative assistant to the senior pastor. The plaintiff alleged that on several occasions another church employee subjected her and others to abusive and threatening behavior, including sexual harassment. She submitted formal complaints to the church leadership, but claimed that no action was taken. The plaintiff allegedly came across information suggesting that the church treasurer and another employee were misusing church funds. The church began an official investigation into financial improprieties as they related to church funds. But, while the investigation was proceeding and before the plaintiff was questioned about her suspicions, her employment was terminated.
Following her termination, the plaintiff alleged that:
- church employees were falsely informed that she had broken into the church and destroyed her former work computer;
- a church employee sent a member of the congregation an email stating that the plaintiff was fired because she "had done things that were evil and absolutely despicable";