Employment Practices – Part 1

A church that dismissed a 47-year-old teacher for remarrying without first obtaining an annulment of a prior marriage could not be sued for age discrimination.

Church Law and Tax2006-09-01

Employment practices – Part 1

Key point 8-07. Employees and applicants for employment who believe that an employer has violated a federal civil rights law must pursue their claim according to a specific procedure. Failure to do so will result in the dismissal of their claim.

Key point 8-09. The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits employers with 20 or more employees, and engaged in interstate commerce, from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of the age of an employee or applicant for employment who is 40 years of age or older. The Act does not exempt religious organizations. Many states have similar laws that often apply to employers having fewer than 20 employees.
Labor Laws

* An Ohio court ruled that a church that dismissed a 47-year-old teacher for remarrying without first obtaining an annulment of a prior marriage could not be sued for age discrimination. A teacher (‘Lynn’) at a church-operated school had taught a fourth grade class for ten years. Her teaching contract required her to ‘respect the spiritual values of the students and to aid in their Christian formation by exemplifying in [her] own actions the characteristics of Christian living.’ The contract further required her to abide by the rules, regulations, and policies of the school as contained in the faculty handbook, which clearly stated that a teacher could be dismissed for behavior inconsistent with ‘the teachings and mission of the church.’ The church’s teachings required that persons receive an annulment of a prior marriage before remarrying. When the pastor of the church asked Lynn why she had remarried before obtaining an annulment, she replied that she felt an annulment was not in the best interest of her family. Her employment contract was terminated on this basis. Lynn sued the church and school on several grounds, including age discrimination and unequal treatment.

Age discrimination

The court noted that proving age discrimination is a three-step process. First, the ‘victim’ must establish a prima facie case by showing that (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was discharged; (3) she was qualified for the position; and (4) she was replaced by (or her discharge permitted the retention of) a person not belonging to the protected class. Second, if the victim establishes a prima facie case, then the employer must demonstrate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the discharge. Third, the victim must then present evidence that the employer’s alleged reason was a mere pretext for unlawful discrimination. The victim must prove that the employer’s reason was false and that discrimination was the real reason for the discharge.

The court concluded that Lynn failed to prove a prima facie case since she did not establish that she was replaced by a person younger than she or that her termination resulted in the retention of someone younger. In fact, she was replaced by an older woman. In addition, her employer demonstrated a nondiscriminatory explanation for her termination-she remarried without first obtaining an annulment from the church, an act that the school found inconsistent with the teachings and mission of the church.

Unequal treatment

In an attempt to bolster her age discrimination claim, Lynn claimed that other employees violated church doctrines without being fired. She cited (1) a teacher who became pregnant while unmarried and was not terminated; (2) a volunteer religion teacher who was an unwed mother of two; and (3) a custodian who was divorced and remarried without having had his prior marriage annulled. The court rejected each of these analogies. The teacher who was pregnant and unmarried did not replace Lynn, so her continued employment did not prove Lynn’s age discrimination claim. The volunteer religion teacher was not subject to an employment contract or the faculty handbook. The custodian was employed by the church, not the school, and was not subject to the school’s faculty handbook.

Application. The most interesting aspect of this ruling was the court’s treatment of Lynn’s ‘unequal treatment’ allegations. The court concluded that the fact that other employees had violated church teachings without being fired should not be viewed in isolation, but rather should be examined in the context of Lynn’s age discrimination claim. Since none of these other employees replaced Lynn, their examples could not be cited in support of her age discrimination claim. Manno v. St. Felicitas Elementary School, 831 N.E.2d 1071 (Ohio App. 2005).

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