• Key point. Under federal law, and the corresponding laws of some states, religious organizations have the right to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of the religious affiliation of applicants.
A Minnesota court dismissed a lawsuit brought by a former female employee of a religious organization claiming that her termination was based on unlawful sex discrimination. Carol, a recent college graduate with a degree in computer science, became a member of a religious faith and within a few years was hired as a systems analyst by the national headquarters of her religious faith. Her $22,000 per year position included helping install a computer system. Shortly before hiring Carol, the national headquarters hired David, another systems analyst. David was several years older than Carol, and had considerable experience in programming mainframe computers and in supervising employees and administering systems. David became systems administrator of the network and immediately had complete access to the network. David was paid $25,000 annually. Carol was not given complete access until she had worked for 11 months. When Carol asked to learn the new network, her supervisor told her to read the manuals on her own time. Carol complained to her employer’s president and several board members regarding what she felt were violations of her legal rights. She was placed on a leave of absence by her employer’s director of spiritual services and warned that if she persisted in trying to impose her feelings on the “spiritual direction” of her employer, she would be suspended or excommunicated. Carol’s membership in her religious faith was terminated because of her disregard of its sacred teachings regarding working in harmony with co—workers. Church membership was a prerequisite for employment at the national headquarters. Because Carol was no longer a member, her employment was terminated. Carol immediately sued her former employer alleging sex discrimination and defamation. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and Carol appealed.
Under Minnesota law, it is an unfair employment practice for an employer to discriminate with respect to terms or conditions of employment on the basis of sex. The court concluded that Carol had not been the victim of unlawful sex discrimination:
EXT The fact that one female manager, in a 70—person organization, was paid less than the males she supervised is not sufficient to present a fact question on the issue of pretext, especially when there was a business reason why she was paid less: it was a temporary position. Moreover, [Carol’s] male replacement was paid less than she, commensurate with his experience. In addition, while [Carol and David] were hired at the same level on the organizational chart, [David] had significant experience in systems administration; [Carol] had none. Thus, it appears this was a legitimate business decision to give [David] more responsibility and pay him $3,000 more than [Carol]. We note that [Carol and David] did not supervise other employees. [David], however, worked with others while supervising projects; therefore, it was not improper to take into account [his] prior supervisory experience.
The court rejected the religious organization’s claim that the civil courts lack jurisdiction to review lawsuits by former employees of religious organizations challenging their dismissals. The court observed that “[i]f an employee’s claims may be resolved by relying on neutral methods of proof, the religion clauses do not prevent review …. [Carol’s] claims were based on disparity in pay, job duties, and access to the computer system. [Her employer] did not allege that the disparity was based on religious reasons, but because of [David’s] superior experience. Because inquiry into these issues did not involve ecclesiastical matters, judicial review was proper.”
The court categorically rejected Carol’s claim that the employer’s “religious reasons” for terminating her membership and employment were in reality a “pretext” to engage in illegal sex discrimination. The court noted that the Minnesota Human Rights Act “exempts a religious organization with respect to religious qualifications when religion is a bona fide occupational qualification.” It continued:
EXT Thus, the issue is not whether [the employer] permissibly or impermissibly discriminated against [Carol] on the basis of religion, but whether the court can resolve whether [the employer] discriminated against [her] on the basis of gender … without violating [the employer’s] first amendment right to the free exercise of religion. We hold we cannot …. Further application of the Act to [the employer in this case], however would excessively burden its religious beliefs …. Here, [the employer] claims it discharged [Carol] because she was no longer a member. Further litigation of [Carol’s] claims would require a court to question [the employer’s] monitoring of [Carol’s] adherence to church doctrine, its reasons for excommunication, and the veracity of [its] responses. On such matters, “the state may no more require a minimum basis in doctrinal reasoning than it may supervise doctrinal content.” Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh—Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164 (4th Cir.1985). If courts begin to question a church’s basis for doctrinal decisions, a church may be compelled to conform its religious beliefs with the government’s or the majority culture’s beliefs …. There is a tension between eradicating discrimination and permitting the free exercise of religion; however, in this case, the balance weighs in favor of the first amendment ….
EXT [Carol] does not dispute the fact that her membership in [the religious faith of her employer] was a condition of her employment. [The employer] claims that, because church membership is a requirement of employment, it terminated [Carol] because she was excommunicated. The parties were unable and we cannot devise a way to determine if this reason for termination was a pretext for discrimination without questioning the reasons for the excommunication and the veracity of those reasons. Such a searching inquiry is barred by the first amendment.
In summary, the court concluded that: (1) Religious organizations are not automatically exempt from sex discrimination claims by present or former employees. (2) Civil courts can resolve such claims if they can do so on the basis of neutral principles involving no interpretation of religious doctrine. (3) Churches can defeat a sex discrimination claim by establishing a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for an employment decision. (4) A church can require that employees be members of the church, and a decision by a church to revoke the membership of an employee (disqualifying the member from further employment) cannot be questioned or overruled by a civil court on the ground that it was a “pretext” for sex discrimination, or on any other ground.
Carol claimed that she had been defamed by statements allegedly made by representatives of her former employer to the effect that she “had poisoned the board,” “was out of control,” “a bad influence,” “emotional,” and “not a team player.” The court acknowledged that in 1990 the United States Supreme Court ruled some opinions may constitute defamation, and that “only statements about matters of public concern not capable of being proven true or false and statements that cannot be interpreted reasonably as stating facts are protected from defamation actions under the first amendment.” Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990). However, the court concluded that the statements made by the employer’s representatives “do not contain facts or factual connotations that can be proven false” and as a result were not defamatory. Geraci v. ECKANAR, 526 N.W.2d 391 (Minn. App. 1995). [ Defamation—Defenses, Termination of Employees, Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes]
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