Age Discrimination at Religious Schools

Courts generally cannot intervene in these cases.

Church Law and Tax 1996-01-01

Employment practices

Key point. Federal age discrimination law prohibits discrimination in employment decisions on the basis of the age of an applicant or employee who is 40 years of age or older. This law only applies to employers that are engaged in interstate commerce and that have at least 20 employees. Many courts have ruled that it does not apply to ministers and lay employees performing religious functions for religious organizations.

A federal court in Colorado ruled that a dismissed teacher at a Catholic high school could not bring an age discrimination claim against the school and archdiocese. A teacher was employed to teach theology at a parochial high school. The school did not renew the teacher’s contract of employment for two reasons: (1) a need for fewer teachers, and (2) the teacher’s skills, abilities and qualifications were deemed less desirable than other faculty members. The parochial school teacher alleged that the archdiocese failed to renew his employment contract on account of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. In summarily rejecting the teacher’s claim, the court observed:

[N]umerous other courts have considered the spectrum of factual scenarios in ADEA cases involving religious—affiliated organizations. The overriding theme is that the more pervasively religious the institution, the less religious the employee’s role need be to risk first amendment infringement. Conversely, the less religious an organization, the more religious an employee’s role need be to risk first amendment infringement. In this case [the teacher] does not challenge [the school’s] religious affiliation. And, significantly he does not contest that his teaching role was primarily religious in nature. He taught Roman Catholic theology exclusively and even held some of his classes in [the school’s] chapel so that his students could pray as part of his class. There is no genuine dispute that [his] duties were pervasively religious in nature.

Courts have consistently held that the ADEA does not apply in cases involving employees performing primarily religious functions. Here, the distinction between ADEA claims brought by an employee holding a secular position with an institution religious in nature and one with pervasively religious duties performed for a Catholic school is dispositive. The first amendment precludes judicial resolution of employment decisions involving ministerial employees ….

Simply put, there is no teaching position more closely tied to a Roman Catholic school’s religious character than teaching Roman Catholic doctrine. I conclude that the archdiocese’s free exercise [of religion] rights are substantially burdened by application of the ADEA under the circumstances here.

The court acknowledged that the government can restrict the free exercise of religion but only if a compelling government interest exists. The court concluded that “although the government clearly has an interest in eradicating age discrimination, it is not compelling in light of the fundamental right of a church to determine who may be trusted with the spiritual function of teaching its ecclesiastical doctrine under the free exercise clause.” The court further observed that, contrary to the teacher’s assertion, “the balance of values does not favor the government’s interference with the archdiocese’s decision as to the appropriate individual to teach its theology.”

The teacher also claimed that the first amendment should not protect the school’s decision in this case unless the archdiocese can prove that a “religious reason” caused his termination. The court deemed this position to be “without merit.” It observed that “all of the decisions addressing this issue have concluded that religious organizations have a per se right to select its ministerial employees …. Accordingly, there is no requirement that the archdiocese demonstrate a ‘religious reason’ for [the teacher’s] termination.”

Even assuming for the sake of argument that a religious organization could not dismiss an employee unless a “religious reason” exists, the court concluded that such a reason existed in this case. The court noted that the school gave two reasons for the discontinuation of the teacher’s employment: (1) a need for fewer teachers, and (2) the teacher’s skills, abilities and qualifications were deemed less desirable than other faculty members. The court noted that “the archdiocese’s second reason for [the teacher’s] termination is a ‘religious reason’ sufficient to implicate the first amendment.” Powell v. Stafford, 859 F. Supp. 1343 (D. Colo. 1994). [ Labor Laws]

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