• Key point. Some church—operated schools are subject to federal laws banning discrimination on the basis of age, gender, and race. While most courts have refused to apply these laws to teachers who are members of the clergy, a few courts have done so when the school fails to adequately demonstrate the religious function and mission of the teacher.
In a surprise development, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) concluded that a religious organization had not engaged in unlawful discrimination. In recent years, the EEOC has routinely accepted, with little if any substantiation, the claims of church employees that they were discriminated against by their employer on the basis of their religion or sex. In some of these cases, the EEOC has gone so far as to rule that a church engages in unlawful “sex discrimination” when it dismisses an employee for engaging in premarital sex contrary to the church’s biblical and moral teachings. A recent case is a refreshing though rare exception to the treatment of churches by the EEOC. A Catholic college denied a priest’s application for a one—year sabbatical, while at the same time approving the applications of two female professors. The priest filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, claiming that the college’s denial of his application amounted to unlawful discrimination based on age, gender, and race (the priest was Asian). The EEOC investigated the complaint and ruled that the evidence did not support the priest’s charge of discrimination! The priest then filed suit in federal court. A federal district court dismissed the case, and the priest appealed. A federal appeals court affirmed the district court’s ruling in favor of the school. The court agreed that federal law banning discrimination based on age, race, and gender can be applied to a college’s policies regarding sabbatical leave. However, it concluded that the college had demonstrated a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for denying the priest’s application for a sabbatical. In particular, it noted that the college was in the process of upgrading its two—year nursing program into an accredited four—year program, and that it granted the two female professors’ requests for sabbaticals since they were involved with the nursing program and needed advanced degrees in order for the nursing program to be upgraded.
Unfortunately, the college failed to claim that the priest’s discrimination claims were barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. The courts have consistently refused to apply civil rights laws to the relationship between clergy and churches (or church—operated schools). Incredibly, the college never raised this defense. The appeals court took the extraordinary step of asking the college to address this issue in a supplemental brief. The college eventually did so, but the court ruled that the first amendment did not bar the priest’s claims in this case since the college “failed to convince us that our consideration of [the priest’s] claims would risk excessive entanglement” between church and state. The lesson is clear-churches and church schools should vigorously and at the earliest opportunity challenge any discrimination claims brought by a member of the clergy, emphasizing the religious role and functions of the minister. As this case illustrates, failure to do so may cause a civil court to reject such a defense. Roxas v. Presentation College, 90 F.3d 310 (8th Cir. 1996). [ Termination of Employees, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Discharge and Discipline of Teachers]
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