Religious and Sex Discrimination in Religious Organizations

Can a former employee sue a religious organization for discrimination?

Church Law and Tax 1992-03-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

A Minnesota appeals court ruled a local civil rights ordinance banning discrimination against homosexuals could not be applied to a religious organization. A Catholic “religious center” in Minneapolis rented space to a number of community groups, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Weight Watchers, and Dignity (an organization composed largely of homosexual Catholics). In 1986, the local archbishop was instructed by the Vatican to determine whether or not pastoral practices in the diocese were consistent with the Vatican’s “Letter to Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” This letter prohibits church facilities from being used by organizations that oppose the Vatican’s position on homosexuality. Since Dignity’s beliefs were in conflict with the Vatican’s position, its lease of space in the religious center was terminated. Dignity filed a complaint with the Minneapolis “department of civil rights,” claiming that a municipal civil rights ordinance banning discrimination against homosexuals had been violated by the termination of its lease. It named the center along with the diocese and archbishop as defendants. The complaint was dismissed, and Dignity appealed to an appeals board which concluded that Dignity’s civil rights had been violated by the defendants. It assessed fines, and ordered the defendants to refrain from any further discrimination against homosexuals. The defendants appealed this order to a state appeals court. The court ruled that application of the civil rights ordinance to the center, diocese, and archbishop constituted prohibited “entanglement” of the government in religious affairs in violation of the first amendment. It concluded: “In determining whether state action constitutes excessive entanglement, a court must undertake an examination of the character and purposes of the groups involved, the nature of the state’s involvement, and the relationship that results between the state and religious authority. In this case, we conclude the nature of the state’s activity clearly evinces excessive entanglement …. A city or municipality is without jurisdiction to enforce civil rights protections against a religious organization enforcing conformity of its members to certain standards of conduct and morals. We therefore conclude the order of the [appeals board] must be reversed as excessive entanglement in religious affairs contrary to the first amendment of the United States Constitution.” This case is one of a few decisions recognizing that the first amendment permits a church to “enforce conformity of its members to certain standards of conduct or morals,” notwithstanding a civil rights law to the contrary. Dignity Twin Cities v. Newman Center and Chapel, 472 N.W.2d 355 (Minn. App. 1991).

See Also: The Civil Rights Act of 1964

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