Religious Discrimination at Religious Organizations

Religious freedom allows this type of discrimination in most cases.

Church Law and Tax 1996-01-01

Employment practices

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 Michigan court ruled that a Catholic diocese could not be sued for refusing to renew a parochial school teacher’s contract on the ground that she was not a Catholic. The teacher, a Protestant, was informed that her contract would not be renewed as a result of a new school policy requiring all teachers to be Catholics. The teacher sued the diocese which operated the school, claiming that the school policy restricting teaching positions to Catholics violated her legal rights under a state civil rights law. She conceded that parochial schools could discriminate on the basis of religion with respect to persons who taught religion, but she insisted that she had been hired to teach “secular subjects.” A trial court dismissed the case and this decision was affirmed on appeal. The state appeals court began its opinion by noting that the teacher brought her lawsuit under a state civil rights law since the Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically permits religious schools to discriminate on the basis of religion with respect to all positions—whether “secular” or religious subjects are taught. The court noted, however, that the Michigan civil rights statute did not contain a similar exemption. It concluded nonetheless that religious schools can discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religions, for two reasons. First, this result is required by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which forbids the states from interfering with the exercise of religion unless there is a compelling governmental interest that cannot be served in a less restrictive way. Second, the court noted that the Michigan constitution’s guaranty of religious freedom imposed the very same requirements as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The court then concluded that there was no compelling governmental interest that justified the prohibition of a parochial school from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of religion, even with respect to “secular” positions. The court observed:

[There is] pervasive religious authority in teaching, even secular subjects, at church—related schools. The various religious duties that [the teacher] admits performing include leading her students in prayer, preparing her students for mass, selecting child readers for mass, attending mass, and utilizing the Bible in the classroom. We find these teaching responsibilities to be inexorably intertwined with the primary function of [the diocese’s] school, which is the education of its students consistent with the Catholic faith. Imposition of religious discrimination laws to teaching positions in religious schools would detrimentally affect the operation of such schools. The state simply has no interest, and certainly no compelling interest, in requiring church—operated schools to employ teachers of other faiths or of no faith. Such state regulation would substantially burden the mission and function of religious schools. Porth v. Roman Catholic Diocese, 532 N.W.2d 195 (Mich. App. 1995). [ Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]

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