Employees’ Violation of Employer’s Moral Teachings

Is termination on such a basis discrimination?

Church Law and Tax 1991-11-01 Recent Developments

Employee Relations

Can a teacher sue a church-operated school for discrimination when it refuses to renew her contract because of her violation of the church’s moral teachings? No, said a federal appeals court. A Catholic school hired a teacher in 1977. A few years later, she was divorced, though this did not affect her eligibility to teach. For the next several years, she served with distinction. However, in 1986, she remarried, and was later informed by the school that she would not be rehired for the following school term. The school based its decision on statements in the employment contract and employee handbook. The contract specified that the school had the authority to dismiss any teacher “for serious public immorality, public scandal, or public rejection of the official teachings, doctrine or laws of the Roman Catholic Church.” The employee handbook illustrated this provision by noting that an employee could be dismissed for “entering into a marriage that is not recognized by the Catholic Church.” The school informed the teacher that she would not be rehired because she had remarried without pursuing “proper canonical process available from the Roman Church to obtain validation of her second marriage,” and thereby had committed a serious offense against the “Church’s teachings and laws on the indissolubility of Christian marriage and the sacramental nature of the marriage bond.” The dismissed teacher sued the school, claiming that her dismissal violated Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 (which prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of religion). A trial court rejected the teacher’s claim, and she appealed.

A federal appeals court also rejected the teacher’s claim. The court acknowledged that the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee on the basis of religion. However, in deciding whether or not to apply this provision to a church-operated school, the court applied a 2-step analysis announced by the Supreme Court in a 1979 decision. In the previous case, the Supreme Court ruled that in evaluating whether or not to apply a government regulation to a religious organization, the following 2 questions must be asked—(1) whether application of the law to the religious organization would “raise substantial constitutional questions,” and (2) if so, whether the legislature clearly expressed an intent that the law apply to religious organizations. In this case, the court concluded that application of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of religious discrimination would raise substantial questions under the first amendment. It noted that “churches have a constitutionally protected interest in managing their own institutions free of government interference.” Accordingly, the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of religious discrimination cannot apply to a church-operated school unless “Congress clearly intended that result.” The court concluded that there was no clear indication of such an intent. This conclusion was supported both the legislative history of the law, and even more importantly, by section 703(e), which specifically exempts religious educational institutions from the prohibition of religious discrimination. Section 703(e) specifies that “it shall not be an unlawful employment practice for a school … to hire and employ employees of a particular religion if such institution is … owned, supported, controlled, or managed by a particular religious [organization].” In conclusion, the court observed: “[I]t does not violate Title VII’s prohibition of religious discrimination for a parochial school to discharge a Catholic or a non-Catholic teacher who has publicly engaged in conduct regarded by the school as inconsistent with its religious principles. We therefore hold that the exemptions to Title VII cover the parish’s decision not to rehire [the teacher] because of her remarriage.” Little v. Wuerl, 929 F.2d 944 (3rd Cir. 1991).

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

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