• Key point: Under federal law, and the corresponding laws of some states, religious organizations have the right to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of the religious affiliation of employees or applicants.
• A New York court ruled that a university affiliated with the Catholic Church did not engage in unlawful discrimination when it dismissed a vice president on the basis of his Jewish faith. The vice president had been employed by St. John’s University for more than 20 years in a variety of capacities. From 1986 to 1990 he served as vice president for student life. In 1990 he was dismissed, and he later sued the university claiming that he had been fired on the basis of his religious beliefs in violation of a state law prohibiting discrimination against employees on the basis of religion. The university pointed out that this law specifies that “nothing contained in this section shall be construed to bar … any organization operated for charitable or educational purposes, which is operated, supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization, from limiting employment … to or giving preference to persons of the same religion or denomination.” The university denied that it dismissed the vice president on the basis of religion, but insisted that even if it did this provision gave it the legal authority to do so. Further, the university claimed that the vice president was an “at will” employee who could be dismissed at any time by the university with or without cause. The former vice president pointed out that the university stated in various publications that it was “an equal opportunity employer” that did not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnic origin, or religion. The state court agreed with the university’s position and dismissed the lawsuit. It concluded that the university clearly fit within the exemption quoted above and accordingly could not be sued for allegedly discriminating against employees on the basis of religion. Further, the court concluded that it is not “inconsistent or contradictory for the university to advertise its nondiscriminatory policies with respect to staff, students, and other nonpolicy making personnel, while reserving its right to exercise a preference for Roman Catholic administrators in the selection of the president’s inner circle of advisors.” The court added that the former vice president “was the individual to whom the university entrusted the duty of overseeing student life on campus, and to whom it had delegated authority over some 18 professional and 111 nonprofessional employees. Under these circumstances, the application of [the exemption quoted above] is neither inconsistent nor unseemly but rather comports with the rationale underlying its enactment, i.e., that a qualifying organization should be afforded the right to the free exercise of religion, particularly in an area so intimately related to its ability to further its mission as a religion organization.” Lastly, the court addressed the former vice president’s claim that his dismissal amounted to a breach of contract: “Absent an agreement establishing a fixed duration or a limitation by express agreement, employment by a private employer is presumed to be at-will, and terminable by either party at any time. Courts will not infer a contractual limitation on the employer’s right to terminate an at-will employment relationship without an express agreement to that effect, which is relied upon by the employee. [The former vice president] failed to show that his employment as an administrator was for a specified duration, that his hiring was governed by any written contract, manual, handbook, or collective bargaining agreement, or that he accepted employment on the condition that he could be discharged for cause only.” Scheiber v. St. John’s University, 600 N.Y.S.2d 734 (A.D. 2 Dept. 1993).
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