• Key point: Dismissing an employee who is pregnant but unmarried may be legally permissible if the basis of the dismissal is adultery. But, dismissal of such an employee on the ground that she is pregnant may violate state or federal discrimination law.
• A federal district court in California refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a former church employee who was dismissed after church leaders learned that she was pregnant out of wedlock. A fundamentalist church operated a private school, and required all employees to be “born again believers living a consistent and practical Christian life.” Employees were required to sign a statement of faith, and to commit themselves to the mission of the church and to a Christian lifestyle that emulates the life of Christ. The school’s librarian, a female, signed an annual affirmation agreement in which she agreed that she would be bound by the moral values and religious beliefs of the church. As an employee, the librarian received an employee manual that repeatedly stressed the importance of employees living a life in conformity to the beliefs and values of the church. The librarian was fired when church leaders learned that she was pregnant out of wedlock. The librarian filed a lawsuit in federal court, asserting that the church, school, and school administrators discriminated against her on account of her pregnancy in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The church and school filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that the librarian had been fired “for the sin of being pregnant without benefit of marriage” (a condition inconsistent with the religious values of the church and school). However, in a subsequent motion for summary judgment, the church and school for the first time asserted that the librarian’s dismissal had nothing to do with her pregnancy, but rather was based on her adulterous relationship. Her pregnancy was evidence of the adultery but had nothing to do with the religious reason for her dismissal. The federal court refused to grant the motion for summary judgment. It acknowledged that the “new position” of the church and school—that the librarian was fired for adultery, and not on account of her pregnancy—would not give rise to a Title VII claim since Title VII specifically permits religious employers to discriminate on the basis of religion in employment decisions. However, the “old position” of the church and school—that the librarian was fired because she was pregnant and not married—raised the possibility of sex discrimination. Title VII prohibits employers with 15 or more employees and engaged in interstate commerce from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or religion in any employment decision. Congress has clarified that sex discrimination includes discrimination based on pregnancy. Title VII contains an exemption for religious organizations, but the exemption only permits such organizations to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religion. They are still subject to the prohibition of discrimination based on race, color, national origin, and sex. The church and school vigorously maintained that their decision to terminate the librarian was a form of religious discrimination that fit squarely within the law’s exemption. The court conceded that this may be the case, but given the original position of the church and school this contention was not sufficiently clear as to warrant a dismissal of the case. Finally, the court rejected the argument of the church and school that their first amendment right to freely exercise their religion was violated by civil court resolution of the librarian’s discrimination claim. They argued that the first amendment “protects churches’ autonomy to make internal religiously-based employment decisions without government interference.” The court disagreed, relying on a 1990 decision of the United States Supreme Court (Employment Division v. Smith). Prior to 1990, the courts generally allowed interference with religious practices only if a “compelling state interest” could be shown. However, in Smith, the Supreme Court said that a compelling state interest is not required to justify the application of “neutral laws of general applicability” to religious organizations. The federal district court concluded that Title VII was a neutral law of general applicability that could be applied to a church without any need to demonstrate a “compelling state interest.” This case is significant for the following reasons. First, it illustrates the importance of accurately describing the basis for terminating an employee. As this case illustrates, there is a critical legal difference between dismissing an employee on account of pregnancy (even if out of wedlock) and dismissing an employee on account of adultery (of which pregnancy is merely evidence). The court acknowledged that dismissing a pregnant employee on account of adultery is permissible under Title VII, though dismissing an employee on account of pregnancy is not. It does not matter that pregnancy out of wedlock violates a church’s religious teachings and values. Title VII does not exempt churches from discrimination based on pregnancy. It does exempt churches from discrimination based on adultery. Second, note that the vast majority of churches are not subject to Title VII (most churches do not have 15 or more employees, and those that do generally are not engaged in interstate commerce). However, many states have their own versions of Title VII, and it is more likely that churches will be covered under these laws. Fortunately, most of them (like Title VII) exempt religious employers from discrimination based on religion. Third, this case illustrates the impact of the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in the Smith case. The district court strongly suggested that prior to Smith it might have agreed that resolving this case would violate the church’s constitutional right to religious freedom. However, this simply was no longer the case. Clearly, the constitutional protection of religious freedom was severely compromised by the Supreme Court in Smith. This is why the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” has been introduced in the United States Senate (by Senator Kennedy). The objective of this bill is to reverse the effect of the Smith case. Vigars v. Valley Christian Center, 805 F. Supp. 802 (N.D. Cal. 1992).
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