Church Liability for Sexual Harassment

A federal court in Oklahoma ruled that a church was not liable on the basis of sexual harassment for the conduct of a minister.

Church Law & Tax Report

Church Liability for Sexual Harassment

A federal court in Oklahoma ruled that a church was not liable on the basis of sexual harassment for the conduct of a minister.

Key point 8-08.2. 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 non-supervisory employees, and even non-employees.

* A federal court in Oklahoma ruled that a church was not liable on the basis of sexual harassment for the conduct of a minister. A woman (Karen) was employed as an administrative assistant at a regional denominational office. Her supervisor was one of the regional church’s officers. Karen sued the regional church for unlawful sexual harassment based on the following conduct of her supervisor: (1) Karen claimed that her supervisor offered to boost her husband’s compensation if she would “cooperate” with him, which she interpreted to mean a sexual relationship. Her husband was a pastor of a local church affiliated with the regional church. (2) Karen alleged that on another occasion her supervisor blocked her path by standing in a doorway, and began rubbing her shoulders while saying that “I’m sorry it has to be this way.” (3) She further alleged that her supervisor continued to sexually harass her for the next few months by brushing against her as he took things from her or handed them to her. Karen’s supervisor terminated her, and she sued the supervisor and regional church for sexual harassment.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of several grounds, including sex. Sex discrimination includes sexual harassment. Title VII applies to any employer engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees. There are two kinds of sexual harassment under Title VII: (1) “hostile work environment” harassment, which consists of offensive conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive; or (2) “quid pro quo” harassment, which “occurs when submission to sexual conduct is made a condition of employment benefits.” Karen claimed that she was subjected to both forms of harassment.

Hostile environment

The court noted that for the regional church to be liable for the supervisor’s “hostile environment” sexual harassment, Karen had to show that “the workplace was permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult, that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment and create an abusive working environment.” The court quoted from a Supreme Court decision:

A sexually objectionable environment must be both objectively and subjectively offensive, one that a reasonable person would find hostile and abusive, and one that the victim in fact did perceive to be so …. Simple teasing, offhand comments and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and conditions of employment. Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998).

The court concluded that Karen failed to show that the conduct of her supervisor was “so extreme as to change the terms and conditions of her employment.” It concluded, “While no woman should be made to feel uncomfortable in the workplace by virtue of a male supervisor leaning into her and brushing against her, because Karen can point to only two incidents, her work environment cannot be perceived as being pervaded by hostility toward women. Consequently, there is insufficient evidence to support a hostile work environment claim.”

Quid pro quo

The essence of quid pro quo harassment is that “job benefits are conditioned on an employee’s submission to conduct of a sexual nature and that adverse job consequences result from the employee’s refusal to submit to the conduct.” Karen argued that her supervisor’s invitation to prevent financial harm to her family in exchange for sexual favors amounted to quid pro quo harassment in violation of Title VII. Once again, the court disagreed, noting that Title VII makes it unlawful for a covered employer to discriminate on the basis of sex against any individual with respect to his [or her] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” The court concluded that “the plain text of Title VII requires that the person whose employment conditions are adversely affected also be the person who is discriminated against on the basis of sex.” Bolin v. Oklahoma Conference, 397 F.Supp.2d 1293 (D. Okla. 2005).

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