Key point 8-12.4. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion. The Act permits religious organizations to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religion. This exemption permits such organizations to discriminate on the basis of moral or scriptural standards so long as they do consistently and not in a way that adversely impacts employees who are members of a group that is protected under an applicable state or federal discrimination law.
An Alabama federal district court ruled that a church childcare employee who was terminated from her position on account of being pregnant out of wedlock could sue the church for pregnancy discrimination.
A church employed a woman (the “plaintiff”) as a maintenance and childcare employee from March 17, 2015, to August 27, 2015. The plaintiff notified her employer at some point during the summer of 2015 that she was pregnant. A pastor became aware that the plaintiff was pregnant, and the church terminated her employment. The church informed her that it terminated her because of the pregnancy. The pastor later explained that he discharged the plaintiff because she engaged in sexual conduct outside of marriage in violation of biblical standards, and she sowed discord among the daycare workers. The church’s daycare director corroborated these assertions.
The plaintiff sued the church for pregnancy discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans employment discrimination based on race, color, nationality, gender, or religion by employers having at least 15 employees. Gender discrimination under Title VII includes employment discrimination based on pregnancy. The church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that it lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate the dispute because assessing the church’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff involved review of religious doctrine in violation of the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.”
The court noted that the “the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, also known as the church autonomy doctrine, requires civil courts to abstain from deciding issues connected to ‘theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or conformity of members of the church to the standard of morals required of them.’” But, the court added, the civil courts are not barred from resolving all church employment disputes. They may, for example, “apply neutral principles of law to decide church disputes that involve no consideration of doctrinal matters.” However, “when a matter does not present a proper occasion for the application of neutral principles, a dispute involving the application of church doctrine and procedure to discipline one of its members is not appropriate for secular adjudication.”
The court stressed that a dismissal of a plaintiff’s lawsuit based on an alleged lack of jurisdiction is an extraordinary act that is inappropriate if there are disputed facts. The court concluded:
The court cannot properly adjudicate the church’s motion to dismiss at this time . . . since the parties present diametrically opposed renderings of the most important event at issue: The plaintiff avers that the church discharged her because she was pregnant, and the church contends that it discharged her because she violated religious tenets. If the church declares truthfully the reasons for the plaintiff’s discharge, then the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies to bar this action; otherwise, its assertions constitute pretext buttressing her pregnancy discrimination claim. . . . A court violates no constitutional rights by merely investigating the circumstances of [plaintiff’s] discharge . . . if only to ascertain whether the ascribed religious-based reason was in fact the reason for the discharge.
What this means for churches
This case illustrates an important point. While the so-called ecclesiastical abstention doctrine generally bars the civil courts from reviewing a church’s termination of an employee based on a violation of church doctrine, the courts are not prevented from ensuring that this was the actual basis for the church’s decision, rather than a pretext. Kelley v. Baptist Church, 2018 WL 2020597 (N.D. Ala. 2018).