Recent Developments by a Federal Appeals Court Regarding Employment Practices

A federal appeals court ruled that a church-affiliated university did not commit unlawful discrimination when it dismissed a professor in its divinity school.

Church Law and Tax1999-05-01

Employment Practices

Key point. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers with 15 or more employees, and that are engaged in interstate commerce, from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of religion. Religious educational institutions are exempt from this prohibition.

A federal appeals court ruled that a church-affiliated university did not commit unlawful discrimination when it dismissed a professor in its divinity school. The professor had been employed to teach at a divinity school associated with Samford University-a Baptist university in Birmingham, Alabama. The professor claimed that he was dismissed by the divinity school’s dean because he “did not adhere to and sometimes questioned the fundamentalist theology advanced by the leadership” of the divinity school. The professor sued the university, claiming that it had discriminated against him on account of his religious views in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A federal district court dismissed the case, and the professor appealed. A federal appeals court upheld the district court’s decision. It based its ruling on two exceptions set forth in Title VII:

(1) The religious institution exemption. Section 702(a) of Title VII specifies that the ban on religious discrimination in employment “shall not apply to … a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.”

The court concluded that this exemption applied to the university based on the following considerations: (1) The university was established as a “theological” institution. (2) The university’s trustees are all Baptists. (3) Nearly 7 percent ($4 million) of the University’s budget comes from the Alabama Baptist Convention (the “Convention”)-representing the university’s largest single course of funding. (4) The university submits financial reports to the Convention, and its audited financial statements are made available to all Baptist churches in Alabama. (5) All university professors who teach religious courses must subscribe to the Baptist “statement of faith,” and this requirement is clearly set forth in the faculty handbook and in faculty contracts. (6) The university’s charter states that its chief purpose is “the promotion of the Christian religion.” (7) The university is exempt from federal income taxes as a “religious educational institution.”

The court rejected the professor’s argument that section 702 exempts religious educational institutions from claims of religious discrimination only when they are acting pursuant to a specific religious policy rather than the actions of individuals (such as a divinity school dean). The court could find no support for this position, and summarily rejected it. The court concluded:

This case comes down to this situation: [The professor] is not allowed to teach at the divinity school of a religious educational institution because his religious beliefs … differ from those of the school’s dean, the person selected by the religious educational institution to apply its policy and to lead the faculty at the divinity school. The section 702 exemption’s purpose and words easily encompass [the professor’s] case; the exemption allows religious institutions to employ only persons whose beliefs are consistent with the employer’s when the work is connected with carrying out the institution’s activities. To us, a teaching job in a divinity school of a religious educational institution is at the core of the section 702 exemption; the inherent purpose of such schools is the study of God and God’s attributes. We conclude that the exemption protects Samford in this case.

(2) The religious educational institution exemption. Section 703(e)(2) of Title VII specifies that it shall not be an unlawful employment practice for a school, college, university, or other educational institution … to hire and employ employees of a particular religion if such a school, college, university, or other educational institution … is, in whole or substantial part, owned, supported, controlled, or managed by a particular religion or religious corporation, association, or society ….

The court concluded that this exemption applied to the university, since it was “in substantial part supported by the Convention:

Continuing support annually totaling over $4 million … accounting for seven percent of a university’s budget, and constituting a university’s largest single source of funding is of real worth and importance. This kind of support is neither illusory nor nominal. So, the Convention’s support is substantial.

The court concluded: “We … must give disputes about what particulars should or should not be taught in theological schools a wide berth. Congress, as we understand it, has told us to do so for purposes of Title VII. Also, such a construction allows us to avoid the first amendment concerns which always tower over us when we face a case that is about religion.”

Application. This case illustrates an important legal principle-religious organizations (including churches, denominations, agencies, and religious educational institutions) are exempt from Title VII’s ban on religious discrimination in employment. This means that they can discriminate on the basis of religion in their employment decisions, including the hiring, firing, and discipline of employees. Killinger v. Samford University, 113 F.3d 196 (11th Cir. 1997). [The Civil Rights Act of 1964]

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