Court Rejected Religious School’s Claim That It Was Exempt from Federal Age Discrimination Law

A federal district court in Ohio rejected a religious school's claim that it was exempt

A federal district court in Ohio rejected a religious school's claim that it was exempt from federal age discrimination law.

Xavier University is a Catholic institution of higher education operated by the Order of Jesuits. An employee brought an age discrimination lawsuit against the University. The University claimed that the court lacked jurisdiction over the case, since, as a religious institution, it was exempt from the antidiscrimination provisions of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA").

The court agreed with the employee that the ADEA "gives no indication that religious institutions are exempt from its provisions." However, it also acknowledged that a religious institution could be exempted on the basis of the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom if application of the ADEA to the institution would "give rise to serious constitutional questions" under the religious freedom clause of the first amendment. The court concluded that no "serious constitutional questions" were implicated by an application of the ADEA to the University and accordingly the claim of an exemption was rejected.

In 1979, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) did not apply to church-operated schools since serious constitutional questions would be implicated by an application of the Act to such schools, and there was no evidence of an "affirmative intention of Congress clearly expressed" for church-operated schools to be covered under the Act. This test for evaluating the application of federal laws to church-controlled schools has not been successfully applied in other contexts. Perhaps it will remain limited to union organizing efforts under the NLRA.

Soriano v. Xavier University, 687 F. Supp. 1188 (S.D. Ohio 1988)

State’s Interests Amounted to a Compelling Interest That Overrode the Church’s Religious Beliefs

Does the application of a state workers' compensation statute to churches violate the constitutional guaranty

Does the application of a state workers' compensation statute to churches violate the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom? No, concluded a federal district court in Ohio.

A Baptist church argued that the state of Ohio, through its workers' compensation system, had "assumed lordship over the church in direct contravention to the biblical principle that Jesus is 'head over all things to the church' (Ephesians 1:22) and that 'in all things [Christ] might have preeminence' (Colossians 1:18)." In addition, the church argued that "it would be a sin to contribute workers' compensation out of church funds designated for biblical purposes and that tithe and offering money … belongs to God."

The court concluded that these allegations were "sufficient to allege infringement of [the church's] religious beliefs." However, "the mere fact that a religious practice is burdened by a governmental program does not mean that an exemption accommodating the practice must be granted," since "the state may justify a limitation on religious liberty by showing that it is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental interest."

The court concluded that a state's interest in assuring the efficient administration and financial soundness of the workers' compensation fund, and in protecting the interests of injured workers, amounted to a compelling interest that overrode the church's religious beliefs. The court noted that the Ohio law did exempt clergy from coverage under the workers' compensation, and this limited exemption sought "to obviate excessive interference with the religious ministry of churches."

Also rejected was the church's claim that the workers' compensation program would impermissibly "entangle" government and church, since other courts had upheld even greater reporting requirements as constitutionally permissible. Finally, the court observed that exempting churches from coverage under the workers' compensation law would force injured workers to sue churches in the civil courts, "an even more undesirable result from a scriptural standpoint." South Ridge Baptist Church v. Industrial Commission, 676 F. Supp. 799 (S.D. Ohio 1987)

Court Ruled Land Owned by a Synagogue Was Exempt from Real Estate Taxes

In a significant decision, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that a three-acre tract of

In a significant decision, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that a three-acre tract of undeveloped land owned by a synagogue and located on its premises was properly exempt from real estate taxes. Ohio law exempts "houses used exclusively for religious worship … and the grounds attached to such buildings necessary for the proper occupancy, use, and enjoyment thereof, and not leased or otherwise used with a view to profit."

The synagogue in question owned fourteen acres, eleven of which consisted of the synagogue building, a parking lot, and a landscaped lawn area. The additional three acres were a largely undeveloped "grove of trees." The tax commissioner ruled that the three acres tract was not exempt from real estate taxes since it was "not necessary for the proper occupancy, use and enjoyment of the synagogue."

This determination was reversed by the state board of tax appeals, and an appeal was taken to the Ohio Supreme Court. The court, in upholding the exemption, observed that "the land added aesthetic qualities to the existing site. It also served as a sound barrier as well as providing a wooded backdrop for outdoor services and congregational activities." The court added that "for outdoor services to be appreciated, it is certainly important to hear them." Accordingly, the use of a grove of trees "as a sound barrier to the noise of traffic travelling by the property" was a necessary means of enabling the congregation to enjoy its property.

While property tax exemptions vary from state to state, an important lesson can be learned from this ruling—churches owning undeveloped tracts of land can enhance (although not guarantee) the exempt status of such property by integrating it into the church's activities. The congregation in the Ohio case used its land as a sound barrier. Other examples of functional use would be sporting activities, outdoor services, parking, and youth activities. Congregation Brith Emeth v. Limbach, 514 N.E.2d 874 (Ohio 1987)

State’s Approval of Home School Program Does Not Violate Freedom of Religion

Parents wanting to educate their children at home suffered setbacks in two recent state court

Parents wanting to educate their children at home suffered setbacks in two recent state court decisions.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a state law requiring parents to obtain the local public school superintendent's approval of a home education program did not violate parents' constitutional right of religious freedom. State v. Schmidt, 505 N.E.2d 627 (Ohio 1987).

In a similar case, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that guidelines adopted by the state for approval of home education programs did not violate the right of parents to freely exercise their religion. The court agreed that parents have a fundamental right to direct the education of their children, but concluded that "such a right is not absolute but must be reconciled with the substantial state interest in the education of its citizenry." Care and Protection of Charles, 504 N.E.2d 592 (Mass. 1987).

State May Not compel Adult to Submit to Medical Treatment Which Would Violate Religious Beliefs

Can a civil court compel a terminally-ill adult to receive potentially life-saving medical treatment despite

Can a civil court compel a terminally-ill adult to receive potentially life-saving medical treatment despite her rejection of such treatment in favor of faith healing?

No, said the Ohio Supreme Court in an important ruling. Noting that faith healing is a form of religious belief, the court concluded that "the state may not compel a legally competent adult to submit to medical treatment which would violate that individual's religious beliefs even though the treatment is arguably life-extending." This is so no matter how "unwise, foolish, or ridiculous" those beliefs may seem to others. In re Milton, 505 N.E.2d 255 (Ohio 1987).

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