Court Awards School Teacher Damages in Suit against Diocese for Disparity in Female and Male Employee Treatment

Church Law and Tax Report Court Awards School Teacher Damages in Suit against Diocese for

Church Law and Tax Report

Court Awards School Teacher Damages in Suit against Diocese for Disparity in Female and Male Employee Treatment

Key point 8-12.1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion. Religious organizations are exempt from the ban on religious discrimination, but not from the other prohibited forms of discrimination.

Key point 8-12.4. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion. The Act permits religious organizations to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religion. This exemption permits such organizations to discriminate on the basis of moral or scriptural standards so long as they do consistently and not in a way that adversely impacts employees who are members of a group that is protected under an applicable state or federal discrimination law.

A federal district court in Indiana ruled that a Catholic Diocese had committed unlawful sex discrimination by dismissing a female employee for pursuing in vitro fertilization contrary to church teachings. A woman (the “plaintiff”) was employed as a teacher at a Catholic parochial school. She and her husband had struggled to have a second child. Her doctor believed in vitro fertilization offered their best (and perhaps only) chance. The plaintiff underwent two rounds of in vitro treatment and notified the school principal before beginning each round. The first time, the principal expressed support and prayers. The Diocese renewed the plaintiff’s year-to-year teaching contract after that. The principal learned of the second round of treatment when the plaintiff notified the school’s attendance officer that she would be taking sick days to undergo the treatment.

At some point the principal acquired a better understanding of church teachings, and realized that the plaintiff was announcing an intention to do something the church viewed as gravely immoral. The tenets of the Roman Catholic Church consider in vitro fertilization to violate the Fifth Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”) because the procedure involves (or can involve) the freezing and discarding of embryos.

The plaintiff’s teaching contract had what the church calls a “morals clause” that requires employees to comport themselves according to the teachings of the church. The principal informed the Diocese about the plaintiff’s plans for in vitro fertilization. The bishop summoned the plaintiff to meet with him and told her in vitro fertilization was a sin. This was news to the plaintiff, who didn’t think the bishop fully understood the process she was undergoing. She tried to explain to him that no embryos were being destroyed; he said he would have to research further because he understood that embryos always were destroyed. The plaintiff was so close to a part of the procedure that she thought it was medically impossible to stop, so she didn’t agree to stop the process.

After conferring with other clergy in the Diocese, the bishop directed the principal to notify the plaintiff that her teaching contract wouldn’t be renewed for the following school year.

The plaintiff sued the Diocese, claiming that its decision not to renew her contract as a result of her violation of the “morals clause” in her contract amounted to sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In support of her discrimination claim the plaintiff introduced evidence that a former male teacher at the school had gone to a strip club with other men to celebrate his birthday, and that when his conduct came to the attention of school officials, he was sent to meet with the bishop. But the bishop didn’t show up; he instead sent a priest. The discussion in the meeting about the wrongfulness of his conduct quickly shifted to a discussion of the upcoming Cubs’ baseball season. The teacher was not disciplined, no one ever reviewed the “morals clause” with him or asked whether he had complied with it before his contract was renewed, and he didn’t promise not to do it again. The Diocese argued that the male teacher’s misconduct in attending a strip club was too dissimilar to the plaintiff’s behavior to have any relevance.

The court pointed to another example of unequal treatment between male and female employees. Namely, that “in vitro fertilization treatment is harder for a female teacher to keep quiet than it would be for a male. The female teacher can’t teach at school when her body is needed for the treatment, so she needs to miss work,” meaning that it is entirely possible for male teachers to retain their jobs despite the “morals clause,” while this would be difficult if not impossible for female teachers.

Because of these examples of different treatment for violations of the “morals clause” based on one’s gender, the court concluded that the Diocese refused to renew the plaintiff’s contract as an elementary school teacher because of her sex, and awarded her $1.95 million in compensatory damages and $1 in punitive damages. The court reduced these awards to a total of $545,000

What This Means For Churches:

This case demonstrates that the dismissal of an employee for violating a church’s moral teachings may expose a church to liability. There are steps that a church can take to mitigate this risk. Before dismissing an employee for violating the church’s moral teachings, church leaders should ask the following questions:

(1) Is there sufficient evidence to support our decision?

(2) Did we inform the employee, in an employee handbook or other document, that he or she would be subject to dismissal for engaging in behavior in violation of our moral teachings?

(3) How will we describe the basis for our decision? The best description will refer to the church’s doctrinal tenets and scriptural citations. Stay away from words such as “pregnancy” that can have a “secular” meaning and that diminish the “religious exemption” available to churches under most federal and state civil rights and employment laws.

(4) How have we treated other employees in the past who were guilty of the same kind of misconduct? Have we treated all employees equally? Or, have we treated some employees less favorably than others? For example, have we dismissed female employees who were guilty of extramarital sexual relations, but only warned or reprimanded male employees guilty of the same behavior? Before dismissing an employee for misconduct, church leaders should review all other known cases involving similar misconduct by other employees. Be sure that an employee who is protected against discrimination by state or federal law is not being treated less favorably than other employees in previous cases.

(5) Have we consulted with an attorney before taking final action? Herx v. Diocese, 2015 WL 1013783 (N.D. Ind. 2015).

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