Religious Employers and Civil Courts

Courts can resolve lawsuits against religious employers if no interpretation of religious doctrine is involved.

Church Law and Tax 1996-03-01

Employment Practices

Key point: Some courts have ruled that they have the authority to review the dismissals of non—minister employees by churches and other religious organizations if they can do so without any consideration of religious doctrine.

A Texas appeals court ruled that a lay teacher’s lawsuit against a Catholic high school for wrongfully dismissing him could be resolved by the civil courts so long as no consideration of religious doctrine was required. The teacher, who originally taught Latin and later was promoted to assistant principal, was terminated when he refused to sign a “conditional employment” agreement the school proposed following an in depth investigation of several allegations of sexual harassment. The school was unable to prove that the harassment actually occurred, so it did not dismiss the teacher outright. Rather, it permitted him to remain employed if he agreed to a demotion, a pay cut, and signed a conditional employment agreement that specified in part:

Conditional Employment Agreement

An investigation has been conducted regarding allegations of sexual harassment lodged against you by students, former and current staff, and parents. During the investigation these individuals, as well as yourself and other individuals who were believed to have information which would tend to discredit or otherwise contradict the allegations were contacted and interviewed. The investigation revealed contradictory and thus inconclusive evidence regarding the occurrence of the sexual harassment. The investigation did however reveal that you have repeatedly demonstrated: (1) lack of sensitivity for the sensibilities of both students and staff members regarding issues of a personal or sexual nature; (2) poor judgment in dealing with students and staff regarding such issues; and (3) use of inappropriate and demeaning language with both students and staff members.

As a result, future employment with [the school] will be conditioned upon your meeting the following requirements: (1) you will not be returned to your position as vice principal … [but rather will be demoted to the position of teacher]; (2) you will immediately cease and desist from using abusive, profane, or otherwise inappropriate language, with both students and fellow staff members; (3) you will attend a seminar or class on sexual harassment in order to raise your sensitivity to such issues; (4) you will not, in any way, retaliate against any of the individuals who participated in the investigation of the allegations against you; (5) you will fully cooperate in any efforts on the party of [the school] to ensure that you comply with these conditions; and (6) any future inappropriate behavior on your part will result in your immediate termination.

A copy of this letter will be retained in your permanent personnel file. If you agree to comply with the conditions set forth above, please indicate your agreement in the signature block and return the original of this letter [to school officials] no later than [date]. Your signature does not indicate your agreement with the conclusions … but does indicate your approval of and agreement to conditions 1—6 above.

The school informed the teacher that this agreement had to be accepted as written or he would be dismissed. The teacher refused to sign this agreement, and he was promptly terminated. He later sued the diocese that operated the school, claiming that it was guilty of breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence in the manner in which it conducted its investigation into the allegations of sexual harassment. A trial court rejected the request of the diocese to dismiss the lawsuit, and the case was appealed. A state appeals court refused to dismiss the case. It concluded that the decision by the school to dismiss the teacher did not involve “religious concerns” and accordingly was reviewable by the civil courts. In support of this conclusion the court pointed to the following factors: (1) the teacher insisted that he was dismissed for non—religious reasons (“political infighting” involving a “false smear campaign” initiated by other teachers); (2) the school regularly accepted students and faculty of all religions (the dismissed teacher was a Protestant); (3) the school provided a largely secular, non—religious curriculum; and (4) the dismissed teacher’s responsibilities were secular and did not involve teaching religion. The court sent the case back to the trial court for “limited discovery” to determine whether or not the school’s decision to terminate the teacher involved religious considerations.

What is the significance of this case to other churches and religious schools? Consider the following.

First, it suggests that restrictions placed on employees accused of sexual harassment are not immune from civil court review or even possible liability. In this regard, note the opposite result reached by a Minnesota case in a case discussed in the July—August 1995 issue of this newsletter. Olson v. 3M Company, 523 N.W.2d 578 (Wis. App. 1994).

Second, it illustrates that employment decisions regarding church and religious school employees who are not ministers and who do not perform religious duties are not immune from civil court review.

Third, the “conditional employment agreement” quoted above is an excellent form that can be adapted by other churches and schools in similar cases involving inconclusive evidence of misconduct. Diocese of Galveston v. Stone, 892 S.W.2d 169 (Tex. App.—Houston 1994). [ Termination, Termination of Employees, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Discharge and Discipline of Teachers]

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