Regulations for Church-Operated Schools

Court rules that church schools must comply with state regulations.

Church Law and Tax 1991-03-01 Recent Developments

Employee Relations

A Wisconsin appeals court ruled that a state agency’s investigation into a dismissed teacher’s complaint of age discrimination did not violate the constitutional rights of a church-operated school. State law prohibits most employers, including church schools, from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of age. A church school terminated a teacher whom it had employed for 16 years. The school cited “problems with the teacher’s classroom management, her professionalism, and her maintenance of a prayerful environment.” The teacher felt that she was fired on account of her age (56), and she filed a complaint with the state equal rights agency. The agency investigated the termination, and concluded that there was reason to believe that the teacher had been a victim of age discrimination. This conclusion was based primarily on the fact that the school had given the teacher an excellent evaluation less than a year prior to her dismissal. The agency ordered a hearing to resolve the matter, but the school filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent any hearing on the ground that a hearing into the basis for its dismissal of one of its teachers would violate its constitutional right to religious freedom. A trial court rejected the school’s position, and the school appealed. A state appeals court concluded that the school’s constitutional rights would not be violated by a hearing addressing the charge of age discrimination. The court relied solely on a 1986 decision of the United States Supreme Court in a similar case. The Supreme Court had ruled that an Ohio civil rights agency “violates no constitutional rights by merely investigating the circumstances of [the employee’s] discharge in this case, if only to ascertain whether the ascribed religious-based reason was in fact the reason for the discharge.” Based on this language, the Wisconsin court concluded that “the state agency charged with enforcing the state’s employment laws can investigate discrimination complaints against a religious institution without violating the first amendment.” The court emphasized that the school “is still free to discharge employees for religious reasons,” and that the school “will prevail in the [agency] investigation if [the dismissed teacher] cannot prove that the religious-based reason given for her discharge was only a pretext for age discrimination.” As a result, the agency hearing into the former teacher’s complaint of age discrimination will proceed. If the school can establish that it dismissed the teacher for “religious” reasons (e.g., failure to maintain a “prayerful environment” in the classroom), then it will prevail. This case also illustrates the problems associated with employee evaluations. While periodic employee evaluations are an excellent practice, they must be done objectively. Employers all too often “inflate” such evaluations in order to avoid conflict. This case illustrates the legal problems that can be associated with such a practice. Sacred Heart School Board v. Labor & Industry Review Commission, 460 N.W.2d 430 (Wis. App. 1990).

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