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Churches May Fire an Employee for Violating Moral Standards If Done Consistently

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 so 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.

A New Jersey court ruled that churches are free to dismiss employees for violating the church’s moral standards so long as they do so consistently and, for example, do not treat male employees who engage in extramarital sexual conduct more leniently than pregnant, unmarried female employees. A school owned and operated by a Catholic church adopted the religious policies on professional and ministerial conduct espoused by the Archdiocese, including a code of ethics. That code states: “Church personnel shall exhibit the highest Christian ethical standards and personal integrity,” and “shall conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with the discipline, norms and the teachings of the Catholic Church.” The policies further preclude immoral conduct by employees, which is defined as “conduct that is contrary to the discipline and teachings of the Catholic Church, and which may result in scandal . . . or harm to the ministry of the Catholic Church.” They apply to clergy members and the “lay faithful,” which are defined as all “paid personnel whether employed in areas of ministry or other kinds of services.” The school’s faculty handbook also contains numerous provisions aligning with the church’s tenets, including a section labeled “Christian Witness,” which required teachers to practice a “value-centered approach to living and learning in their private and professional lives.”

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