Key point 8-12.5. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It consists of both “quid pro quo” harassment and “hostile environment” harassment. Religious organizations that are subject to Title VII are covered by this prohibition. An employer is automatically liable for supervisory employees’ acts of harassment, but a defense is available to claims of hostile environment harassment if they have adopted a written harassment policy and an alleged victim fails to pursue remedies available under the policy. In some cases, an employer may be liable for acts of sexual harassment committed by nonsupervisory employees, and even nonemployees.
A federal appeals court ruled that a church agency was not liable on the basis of sexual harassment for an employee’s alleged display of a video showing a momentary image of male nudity to a co-employee. A church agency hired a woman (the “plaintiff”) as a clerical employee. The plaintiff’s employment was terminated when her employer discovered that she had been secretly recording her conversations with co-workers without their consent. The employer concluded that her behavior violated its employment standards, and a state eavesdropping law. After her termination, the plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that she was sexually harassed on one occasion when another employee showed her a supposedly humorous video on his computer that included a brief display of male nudity. She also claimed that her employer discriminated against her on the basis of race and national origin when it failed to promote her on four occasions.
A federal district court dismissed all claims against the employer, and the plaintiff appealed.
Race and national origin discrimination
A federal appeals court concluded that the plaintiff “has offered no direct evidence that her race or national origin motivated any decision by the employer. The court pointed out that the plaintiff had failed to submit a timely application for most of the four promotions she sought, and that these positions had already been filled by the time it received the plaintiff’s applications.
Further, the employer presented “non-discriminatory reasons for the decisions not to promote the plaintiff.” In particular, the employer believed she lacked the leadership and interpersonal skills necessary for the jobs.
The court concluded that the plaintiff’s sexual harassment claim based on seeing one video with nudity on a co-worker’s computer was also properly dismissed: “The sole alleged incident was not severe enough to support a claim [of sexual harassment]. Although a single instance of behavior can give rise to liability if it is sufficiently severe, past cases finding liability for a single incident have involved facts much more severe than those claimed by the plaintiff … . Showing the plaintiff one video containing a momentary display of male nudity does not come close to reaching the required level of severity for a sexual harassment claim.” As a result, this claim was properly dismissed by the district court.
What This Means For Churches:
Sexual harassment is a form of “sex discrimination” prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulations define sexual harassment as follows: