Age Discrimination and Religious Organizations

Court says religious organizations not applicable to most religious organizations.

Church Law and Tax 1995-01-01 Recent Developments

Employment Practices

Key point: The federal age discrimination does not apply to most religious organizations.

A federal district court in Missouri ruled that it could not resolve a lawsuit brought against a synagogue by a former business administrator who claimed that he had been dismissed on the basis of age. The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits covered employers from discriminating in any employment decision (hiring, firing, etc.) on the basis of the age of any individual who is at least 40 years of age. The Act applies to any employer with 20 or more employees that is involved in interstate commerce. In deciding that the Act did not apply to the synagogue, the court relied on the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision in N.L.R.B. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490 (1979). In the Catholic Bishop decision, the Supreme Court ruled that in deciding whether of not a federal law applies to religious organizations, a civil court first must ask if applying the law “would give rise to serious constitutional questions.” If it would, then the law cannot be applied to religious organizations without a “clear expression of an affirmative intention” by Congress to apply the law to such organizations. The district court concluded that applying the Age Discrimination in Employment Act to a church or synagogue would “give rise to serious constitutional questions.” In reaching this conclusion, the court quoted from the business administrator’s job description, and noted that his duties included “implementing Temple policies” and “having a positive attitude towards Jewish life and a Jewish background, enabling the administrator to understand the work of the Temple, its purposes and highest ideals and goals.” The court noted that the synagogue terminated the business administrator in part because he was “not properly performing the position of administrator.” It concluded:

If, as [the synagogue] has argued, [the administrator] was not properly performing the position of Temple administrator, and because every aspect of [his] job description includes the religious element set out in [the job description], there is the risk that this case would infringe on the first amendment by requiring this court to inquire into whether [the administrator] understood “the work of the Temple, its purposes and highest ideals and goals,” as he went about performing his duties. This case, accordingly, “gives rise to serious constitutional questions.”

The court then observed, again referring to the Supreme Court’s test in the Catholic Bishop decision, that “[h]aving identified the existence of a ‘serious constitutional question’ the court next must ascertain whether Congress has provided a ‘clear expression of an affirmative intention’ that the [Act] apply to religious institutions.” The court emphasized that this test “leaves no room for deduction or inference” and that “[a]bsent a congressional mandate that the [Act] apply to religious institutions, Catholic Bishop requires this court to hold that the [Act] does not extend to a Temple.” Since the Act did not specifically apply to churches of synagogues, the court concluded that this test was not met and accordingly the Act could not apply. On this basis it dismissed the lawsuit. Weissman v. Congregation Shaare Emeth, 839 F. Supp. 680 (E.D. Mo. 1993).

See Also: Age Discrimination in Employment Act

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