Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation

Can religious organizations discriminate on this basis?

Church Law and Tax 1992-03-01 Recent Developments

Clergy – Removal

A federal appeals court ruled that a hospital chaplain could not sue the hospital for alleged age and sex discrimination following her dismissal. The former chaplain was an ordained Episcopal priest who had served as chaplain of a church affiliated hospital for 10 years. Following her dismissal, the former chaplain sued the hospital on the grounds that her dismissal (1) violated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits certain employers from dismissing employees on the basis of their sex, and (2) violated the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which bans discrimination in employment against persons 40 years of age and older—on account of age. A federal district court rejected the former chaplain’s claims. In reaching its decisions, the district court emphasized that the hospital was “a church-affiliated institution with substantial religious character,” and that the former chaplain’s position was “inherently religious.” The court observed that the former chaplain had acted as a minister “by visiting hospital patients, reading the Bible to them, praying with them, performing baptisms, presiding at funerals, administering communion, performing chapel services, etc.” These activities, concluded the court, “are inherently religious and so confer on [the] chaplain position its inherently religious nature.” The court also rejected the former chaplain’s claim that since her lawsuit alleged only age and sex discrimination, any consideration of the ecclesiastical nature of her duties was inappropriate. It noted that the hospital had asserted that the dismissal was based in part on the former chaplain’s failure to follow “liturgical requirements,” and accordingly any review of her dismissal would inevitably involve the court in ecclesiastical considerations.

The former chaplain appealed the case to a federal appeals court, which also rejected all of her claims. The court emphasized that the hospital was “without question a religious organization,” and that the chaplain position “is primarily a ministerial position.” The court concluded: “[W]e believe that the free exercise [of religion] clause of the first amendment also prohibits the courts from deciding cases such as this one. Personnel decisions by church-affiliated institutions affecting clergy are per se religious matters and cannot be reviewed by civil courts, for to review such decisions would require the courts to determine the meaning of religious doctrine and canonical law and to impose a secular court’s view of whether in the context of the particular case religious doctrine and canonical law support the decision the church authorities have made. This is precisely the kind of judicial second-guessing of decision-making by religious organizations that the free exercise [of religion] clause forbids.” Scharon v. St. Luke’s Episcopal Presbyterian Hospitals, 929 F.2d 360 (8th Cir. 1991).

See Also: Termination

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