• Key point 8-12. Many state civil rights laws prohibit employers with a specified number of employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of the sexual orientation of an employee or applicant for employment. Such laws generally exempt religious organizations.
* A Minnesota court ruled that a religious school and a parent denomination did not unlawfully discriminate against a homosexual teacher who was forced to resign after disclosing his sexual orientation. A private Christian school was affiliated with a religious denomination (the ‘national church’). The national church formally recognized homosexual behavior as ‘intrinsically sinful,’ and urged homosexuals to repent and abstain from homosexual behavior. The school’s faculty handbook notes that the school ‘is a sacred community which is administered according to the Christian understanding of the Gospel.’ The school’s bylaws state that the aim of the school is ‘to offer a sound Christian education’ and that education is to ‘rest wholly and solely on the Word of God as contained in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.’ The bylaws further specify that ‘no instructor shall be employed or retained who teaches anything contrary to the letter and spirit of the confessions, doctrines, practices or discipline prescribed by’ the national church.
The national church ordained Jon as a pastor in 1976. He was initially called to serve as the school’s pastor from 1976 to 1979. After serving in other ministries, he was again called to be the school’s pastor and a teacher in 1993. Jon was employed by the school as a teacher and chair of the theology department, as well as a campus pastor. His responsibilities included classroom education, chapel oversight, and student counseling. As campus pastor he conducted chapel services, conducted and oversaw small prayer groups and meetings for the students, and had a pastoral-care office.
Jon, who was married and had two daughters, informed his family in 1998 that he identified as a gay man. At his wife’s request he informed her family by letter of his sexual orientation. When contacted by representatives of the national church Jon acknowledged his identity as a gay man and explained that he was not in a ‘gay relationship’ and had never lived a ‘gay lifestyle.’ A few months later Jon resigned his position at the school without informing any of his students of his sexual orientation. He later sued the school and national church for discrimination based on his sexual orientation due to his ‘forced resignation.’ Since there are no federal laws prohibiting private employers from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of sexual orientation, Jon sued the national church and school for violating the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). The trial court dismissed Jon’s lawsuit, claiming that resolving it would result in an ‘excessive entanglement between the church and state in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.’ Jon appealed.
The court began its ruling by observing:
The state may not inquire into or review the internal decisionmaking or governance of a religious institution. Accordingly, a court could not review claims by a pastor related to her appointment and discharge under the MHRA because these were fundamentally connected to issues of church doctrine and governance and would require court review of the church’s motives for discharge. Black v. Snyder, 471 N.W.2d 715 (Minn. App. 1991). Similarly, a pastor’s claims related to his appointment and discharge as a pastor were not reviewable because adjudication would require an evaluation of scripture, doctrine, and moral principles. Singleton v. Christ the Servant Evangelical Lutheran Church, 541 N.W.2d 606 (Minn. App. 1996). In contrast, courts may address a claim against a church without excessive entanglement ‘when the dispute can be resolved according to ‘neutral principles of law’–that is, by rules or standards that have been developed and are applied without particular regard to religious institutions or doctrines.’ Odenthal v. Minnesota Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 649 N.W.2d 426 (Minn. 2002).
In summary, ‘the question here is whether analysis of Jon’s discrimination claim will require inquiry into the internal decision-making of a religious institution, is fundamentally connected to issues of church doctrine and governance, or requires evaluation of scriptures and church doctrine, or whether it may be resolved by neutral principles of law.’
Jon acknowledged that part of his job involved pastoral duties, but he asserted that because he was also a secular teacher, resolution of his claims would not violate the First Amendment. Further, he argued that even though he acknowledged his identity as a gay man, it was acceptable for him to continue in his position because he was celibate and did not speak openly about his sexual orientation.
The court rejected Jon’s arguments. It concluded that any analysis of his claims would require delving into church doctrine:
Jon, an ordained minister, was initially called to his position, a process which, according to church doctrine, is guided by the Holy Spirit and God’s will. The high school is a sacred community administered according to the Christian understanding of the Gospel. The education provided to students is based on the scriptures of the Old and New Testament, to which teachers are asked to ascribe when teaching. The national church’s position is that homosexuality is intrinsically sinful. Jon’s assertion that he should not have been discharged based on his sexual orientation would require the court to analyze and apply church doctrine to assess his argument. We must conclude that this type of searching inquiry intrudes into church doctrine and church administrative matters and engenders a prohibited relationship between the church and the judiciary. Consequently, resolution of Doe’s claims would violate the establishment doctrine of the First Amendment.
Jon claimed that because the school and national church never incorporated the religious belief that homosexuality is a sin into their employment policies and because they have no stated policy, either written or unwritten, that forbids homosexuality among its employees, the employment decision did not implicate religious beliefs, procedures, or law. He asserted he did not introduce his sexual orientation or opinions into the workplace and further that he was teaching church doctrine and never acted in a manner that would have compromised the school’s religious beliefs. The court stressed that Jon was not merely a lay employee but instead was a campus pastor as well as a teacher of religious subjects. The school and national church decided that he should be discharged because of their ecclesiastical concerns based on their firmly held religious beliefs. As a result, any analysis of his qualification for employment would require analysis of those beliefs.
The court also ruled that the school and national church could not be sued because of a provision in the MHRA that exempts religious organizations from the ban on employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. The exemption states: ‘Nothing in this [law] prohibits any religious association, religious corporation, or religious society that is not organized for private profit, or any institution organized for educational purposes that is operated, supervised, or controlled by a religious association, religious corporation, or religious society that is not organized for private profit, from … in matters relating to sexual orientation, taking any action with respect to employment ….’
Application. This case illustrates the unwillingness of the civil courts to delve into employment disputes involving employees of religious organizations whose duties are religious in nature. This principle has been applied to various forms of employment discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation. Doe v. Lutheran High School, 702 N.W.2d 322 (Minn. App. 2005).
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