Employment Practices – Part 1

Maryland’s highest court ruled that an employment discrimination law that did not permit religious organizations to discriminate on the basis of religion would violate the first amendment’s guaranty of religious freedom.

Church Law and Tax2002-07-01

Employment Practices

Key point 8-08.1. 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.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

* Maryland’s highest court ruled that an employment discrimination law that did not permit religious organizations to discriminate on the basis of religion with respect to any staff position would violate the first amendment’s guaranty of religious freedom. A church-school provides education from kindergarten through grade 12. When the church employed a new pastor in 1996, the school’s administrative policies were reviewed and a rule was adopted requiring all school employees to be members of the church. Following the adoption of this rule, all employees who were not church members were terminated. One of these employees ("Anne") sued the school. She had been employed as a teacher’s aide, and her duties included such tasks as copying, typing, grading papers, and generally assisting school staff and teachers. Anne claimed that her termination violated a county employment discrimination law prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of religion. The school pointed out that the law contained an exemption for church employees who "perform purely religious functions." A trial court ruled that the exemption did not apply and awarded Anne money damages. The school appealed.

The state court of appeals (the highest state court) ruled that the county employment discrimination law, by limiting the exemption for religious employers to employees hired to "perform purely religious functions" was too narrow and violated the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. The court struck down this limitation, and interpreted the law to permit religious organizations to discriminate in any employment decision on the basis of religion (regardless of whether an employee was hired to "perform purely religious functions"). The court based its decision on a 1987 decision of the United States Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of a provision in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowing religious organizations to discriminate in all employment decisions on the basis of religion, regardless of the "religious" nature of the position. Corporation of Presiding Bishop v. Amos, 483 U.S. 327 (1987). The Supreme Court, in the Amos case, refused to limit the exemption to employees who perform "religious" duties. It explained its reasoning as follows: "It is a significant burden on a religious organization to require it, on pain of substantial liability, to predict which of its activities a secular court will consider religious. The line is hardly a bright one, and an organization might understandably be concerned that a judge would not understand its religious tenets and sense of mission. Fear of potential liability might affect the way an organization carried out what it understood to be its religious mission." The Supreme Court further noted that expanding the exemption to cover all employees of religious organizations was "motivated by a permissible purpose of limiting governmental interference with the exercise of religion."

The Maryland court also noted that the county law was invalid because it failed to recognize the "ministerial exemption" to civil rights laws. Under this well-established exemption that has been recognized by many courts, federal and state discrimination laws cannot be applied to ministers or lay employees whose duties are "integral to the spiritual and pastoral mission" of the religious organization. The courts have concluded that this exemption is mandated by the first amendment. In explaining why the county law in this case violated the "ministerial exemption," the court observed:

It is obvious that the provision effectively contains no exemption allowing religious organizations to employ only persons of a particular religion. Although the [law] ostensibly allows religious organizations "to hire and employ employees of a particular religion," the next five words limit the authorization to the hiring of employees "to perform purely religious functions." The limitation effectively nullifies the exemption. It is doubtful that any employees of religious organizations in [the county] perform purely religious functions. Even ministers, pastors, priests, rabbis, and other theological heads of religious organizations occasionally perform functions which would not ordinarily be characterized as "religious." Many other employees of religious organizations, such as teachers, may perform both religious and non-religious functions. Nonetheless, as shown by the previously discussed cases, the constitutional free exercise guarantee restricts governmental interference with a religious organization’s hiring and firing of employees who are involved in the religious activities of the organization.

Application. This ruling, coming from the highest state court in Maryland, will be a useful precedent for churches and church schools to cite when they are accused of violating a state or county discrimination law as a result of the dismissal of an employee on the basis of religion. The court concluded that any discrimination law that bars discrimination in employment on the basis of religion that does not allow religious organizations to discriminate with respect to any position ("religious" or secular) on the basis of religion would violate the first amendment. Montrose Christian School v. Walsh, 770 A.2d 111 (Md. 2001).

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