Employment Practices – Part 1

A federal court in Kansas ruled that a church could be liable for a staff member’s repeated acts of sexual harassment.

Church Law and Tax2004-11-01

Employment Practices – Part 1

Key point 8-08.2. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It consists of both “quid pro quo” harassment and “hostile environment” harassment. Religious organizations that are subject to Title VII are covered by this prohibition. An employer is automatically liable for supervisory employees’ acts of harassment, but a defense is available to claims of hostile environment harassment if they have adopted a written harassment policy and an alleged victim fails to pursue remedies available under the policy. In some cases, an employer may be liable for acts of sexual harassment committed by nonsupervisory employees, and even nonemployees.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964

Key point 10-10.1. Some courts have found churches liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a minister’s acts of sexual misconduct involving adult church members on the ground that the church failed to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of the minister.
Negligence as a Basis for Liability

* A federal court in Kansas ruled that a church could be liable for a staff member’s repeated acts of sexual harassment. An ordained female pastor (Becky) accepted a position with a church. Her duties included preaching, supervising staff, and ministering to the church community. Pastor Becky’s duties required continuous contact with John, the church’s director of music (and church elder). She claimed that over the course of 5 years John subjected her to sexually inappropriate behavior which was rude, offensive, oppressive, humiliating, degrading, embarrassing, annoying and emotionally upsetting. Such conduct included (1) embracing her in an extremely hard, suggestive and sexual manner; (2) making comments about the drug Viagra; (3) telling her that he liked it when she wore short skirts; (4) making explicit gestures and comments; and (5) touching her breasts, buttocks and other personally sensitive areas. Pastor Becky claimed that John subjected other women in the church to similar behavior. John resigned his position as music director but retained his position as elder.

The church board later considered rehiring John as music minister, but Pastor Becky strenuously objected, referring to his past sexual misconduct. The board later advised Pastor Becky that she had been accused of engaging in inappropriate behavior similar to that of John. It eventually dismissed her despite her satisfactory job performance. Pastor Becky filed a claim of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging that the church had engaged in sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation. The EEOC investigated and issued her a “right to sue” letter (meaning that it found a reasonable basis for her claims). Pastor Becky then sued the church in federal court, claiming discrimination, and “intentional failure to supervise.”

The court ruled that the church could be liable for John’s acts on the basis of an “intentional failure to supervise” since it had the ability to control him and “knew or should have known of the necessity and opportunity for exercising such control.” The court added that a church also can be liable for a negligent failure to supervise, where its failure is due to careless or inadvertence, but noted that Pastor Becky’s lawsuit did not allege this theory of liability. Dolquist v. Heartland Presbytery, 2004 WL 74318 (D. Kansas 2004).

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