Key point 8-06. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying civil rights laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.
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.
* A federal court in New York ruled that church-operated schools can enforce “moral codes” on their employees, but only if they do so fairly and uniformly and not in ways that disproportionately and adversely affect persons (such as pregnant, since women) who are protected by employment discrimination law. A woman (the “plaintiff”) taught a fifth grade class at a church-operated school. She was required to teach one hour of Bible study per day and spent the remainder of her day teaching secular subjects. Shortly after the start of her third academic year, the plaintiff informed the school principal that she was pregnant; that she intended to follow through with the pregnancy; and that she did not intend to marry the father of the unborn child. Based on her decision not to marry the child’s father, the principal informed plaintiff that she would have to bring the matter to the attention of the governing board of the school and initiate termination proceedings. In a subsequent meeting, the board voted to terminate plaintiff “in that her pregnancy outside of marriage was evidence of fornication.” The principal thereafter sent the plaintiff a letter informing her that the board had voted to terminate her employment for exhibiting “immoral or unsatisfactory personal conduct inconsistent with the principles of the church.” The plaintiff sued the church that operated the school, claiming that it had unlawfully discriminated against her on the basis of pregnancy in violation of state and federal law.
The school required all teachers to sign an employment agreement prior to the start of each academic year. The employment agreement states that the employee and employer shall “be bound by” various specified policies. One of these policies stated: “Termination is discontinuance of salary and employment at any time by the employing organization, at their sole discretion. An employee may be terminated for, but not limited to, the following reasons: … Immoral or unsatisfactory personal conduct inconsistent with the principles of the church.” Another policy listed “fornication” under “grievous sins for which members shall be subject to discipline.” Plaintiff did not recall being given a copy of these policies and also denied being aware that “immoral or unsatisfactory personal conduct” could be grounds for termination. She claimed to be unaware that having sexual relations outside of marriage was contrary to the teachings of the church.
In arguing that she was singled out for termination because of her pregnancy, plaintiff maintained that other teachers at the school were having sexual relations outside of marriage, which she knew based on “talking with them about their relationships.” However, she admitted to having no knowledge whether any member of the school administration had ever been informed of such conduct. She testified that she was aware of one teacher who taught at the school while pregnant and separated from her husband during at least part of the pregnancy.
The church insisted that the “ministerial exception” required the plaintiff’s lawsuit to be dismissed. The ministerial exception generally prohibits the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and their ministers. The court agreed that this rule has been applied in some cases to non-ordained church employees whose primary duties consist of “teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship.” However, the court concluded that the ministerial exception did not apply in this case since plaintiff’s teaching duties were primarily secular, and her religious duties were limited to one hour of Bible instruction per day and attending religious ceremonies with students once per year. The court stressed that there was no evidence that the plaintiff included church teachings when she taught secular subjects.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of gender or pregnancy. Title VII applies to any employer engaged in interstate commerce and having 15 or more employees. The court summarized the “burden shifting” analysis that is used in resolving Title VII discrimination claims.
First, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case by showing that he or she (1) is a member of a protected class, (2) was qualified for the position in question, and (3) suffered an adverse employment action (4) under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. The prima facie case “raises an inference of discrimination” that the employer must rebut.
Second, the burden then shifts to the employer “to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employee’s rejection.” If the employer meets this burden, the presumption of discrimination set by the prima facie case is dropped.
Third, the burden or proof shifts back to the employee to show that the reasons given by the employer are a pretext for discrimination. Pretext may be shown “either directly by persuading the court that a discriminatory reason more likely motivated the employer or indirectly by showing that the employer’s purported explanation is unworthy of credence.”
Here, there was no dispute that the plaintiff established a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination. As a pregnant woman she was a member of a protected class; she was qualified for the teaching position at the school; and she suffered an adverse employment action by being terminated. The church countered that plaintiff was not terminated because of her pregnancy but because of her failure to abide by the church’s doctrine that fornication is a “grievous sin.”
Where an employer has articulated a religious reason for the allegedly discriminatory adverse employment action, the plaintiff may not challenge the plausibility of that religious reason. The court must presume that “an asserted religious motive is plausible in the sense that it is reasonably or validly held.”
The focus of the court’s inquiry then becomes pretext, including “factual questions such as whether the asserted reason for the challenged action comports with the defendant’s policies and rules, whether the rule applied to the plaintiff has been applied uniformly, and whether the alleged nondiscriminatory purpose was stated only after the allegation of discrimination.” The court concluded:
In cases where religious school employers have asserted fornication as a reason for terminating a pregnant unmarried woman, courts have held that an employer enforcing such a policy unevenly—e.g., only against women or only by observing or having knowledge of a woman’s pregnancy—is evidence of pretext. This is because a school violates Title VII if, due purely to the fact that women can become pregnant and men cannot, it punishes only women for sexual relations because those relations are revealed through pregnancy. Thus, while a religious school employer may validly seek to impose moral doctrine upon its teaching staff, punishment singularly directed at [women] without regard to [men] is not permissible.
The court noted that the church provided no evidence “that any other teacher has been terminated from the school for engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage. Knowledge of other teachers engaging in extramarital sexual relations, as reported by plaintiff, cannot be imputed to the defendant. But the church fails to explain how it has enforced a policy against such behavior, if it exists, to both males and females. Moreover, the church admits to considering plaintiff’s pregnancy as evidence of fornication.” The court concluded that “the issues raised by plaintiff … at least raise a question regarding whether the church’s policy is applied in a discriminatory fashion and whether plaintiff was terminated because of her sex and pregnancy, as prohibited by Title VII.”
The church insisted that the plaintiff knew about its policy against extramarital sexual relations and that the annual employment contracts she signed “legitimized” her termination. The court disagreed, noting that “there can be no prospective waiver of an employee’s rights under Title VII” and that “Title VII’s strictures are absolute and represent a congressional command that each employee be free from discriminatory practices.” Therefore, “employment contracts, no matter what the circumstances that justify their execution or what the terms, may not be used to waive protections granted to an individual under Title VII or any other Act of Congress.”
The sole issue was “whether the church terminated plaintiff because of her sex and pregnancy or because of an evenly applied religious and moral code.”
Application. This case is important for three reasons. First, it demonstrates that churches can impose scriptural or moral standards on their employees, and such efforts will be fully protected by the civil courts—so long as they do so fairly and uniformly and not in ways that disproportionately and adversely impact persons (such as pregnant women) who are protected by federal or state employment discrimination laws. As the court noted, “In cases where religious school employers have asserted fornication as a reason for terminating a pregnant unmarried woman, courts have held that an employer enforcing such a policy unevenly—e.g., only against women or only by observing or having knowledge of a woman’s pregnancy—is evidence of pretext. This is because a school violates Title VII if, due purely to the fact that women can become pregnant and men cannot, it punishes only women for sexual relations because those relations are revealed through pregnancy. Thus, while a religious school employer may validly seek to impose moral doctrine upon its teaching staff, punishment singularly directed at [women] without regard to [men] is not permissible.”
Second, the court rejected the church’s claim that the plaintiff consented to being terminated for immoral conduct when she signed her annual employment contract. The court disagreed, noting that “there can be no prospective waiver of an employee’s rights under Title VII” and that “Title VII’s strictures are absolute and represent a congressional command that each employee be free from discriminatory practices.” Therefore, “employment contracts, no matter what the circumstances that justify their execution or what the terms, may not be used to waive protections granted to an individual under Title VII or any other Act of Congress.”
Third, the court’s rejection of the application of the ministerial exception to the plaintiff represents a very narrow reading of the exception that has not been shared by several other courts. Redhead v. Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 440 F.Supp.2d 211 (E.D.N.Y. 2006).