Sexual Harassment

A Florida court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment’s ban on “excessive entanglement” between church and state from resolving a church secretary’s claim of sexual harassment.

Key point. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It consists of both "quid pro quo" harassment and "hostile environment" harassment. Religious organizations that are subject to Title VII are covered by this prohibition. An employer is automatically liable for supervisory employees' acts of harassment, but a defense is available to claims of hostile environment harassment if they have adopted a written harassment policy and an alleged victim fails to pursue remedies available under the policy. In some cases, an employer may be liable for acts of sexual harassment committed by nonsupervisory employees, and even nonemployees.

Facts of the Case

A woman ("Anne") was employed as a church secretary and bookkeeper. She sued her church and a denominational agency alleging that a church volunteer who served as chairman of the pastor parish relations committee had (PPRC) sexually harassed her on the job. A state appeals court dismissed Anne's lawsuit on the ground that her claims, "which are based upon the actions of a volunteer rather than another employee, will require a secular court to review and interpret church law, policies, and practices to determine whether an agency relationship existed" between the alleged offender, the PPRC, the church, and denominational agency, and whether the church defendants could be held liable for the alleged offender's actions. The court concluded that "this examination would violate the first amendment's excessive entanglement doctrine."

A dissenting judge did not believe that the first amendment barred Anne's claims. This judge observed, "Anne worked as a bookkeeper for the church. There is no indication that her duties involved religious matters related to the church. Her alleged harasser served as chairman of a committee appointed by the church to oversee her hiring as well as raises and promotions. It is unclear from the record how many employees the committee supervised or whether they had any responsibilities related to supervision of the pastor or any other employee exercising religious duties.

The alleged wrongdoing of the church involved allowing the harasser to remain in a supervisory capacity over Anne even after it was made aware of his misconduct …. While questions involving the supervision or retention of clergy arguably would raise issues about excessive entanglement with religious decisions of the church … the same concerns are not present in cases involving questions about the church's supervision of lay persons making employment decisions over lay employees.

There is no indication in this case that any decisions made concerning Anne's employment relationship were made on the basis of religious considerations …. In the absence of evidence that the employment decisions made here were motivated by religious considerations, the case should go forward. Sound public policy requires that religious organizations not be given blanket immunity for employment decisions relating to lay employees."

Application to Churches

Note the following points:

1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits covered employers from discriminating against any employee or applicant "with respect to compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment, because of such individual's sex." Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. The courts have identified two types of sexual harassment-"quid pro quo" and hostile environment. "Quid pro quo" harassment refers to conditioning employment opportunities on submission to a sexual or social relationship, while "hostile environment" harassment refers to the creation of an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment through unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

2. EEOC regulations address employer liability for the sexual harassment of non-employees as follows: "An employer may also be responsible for the acts of non-employees, with respect to sexual harassment of employees in the workplace, where the employer (or its agents or supervisory employees) knows or should have known of the conduct and fails to take immediate and appropriate corrective action. In reviewing these cases the Commission will consider the extent of the employer's control and any other legal responsibility which the employer may have with respect to the conduct of such non-employees."

3. Anne claimed that the PPRC chairman committed both kinds of sexual harassment. While the court concluded that the first amendment prevents the civil courts from resolving such claims involving church employees, this conclusion has not been followed by other courts. In summary, while church leaders can cite this case in the defense of a sexual harassment claim, they should not assume that the court's conclusion will be followed by other courts.

4. It is very important for any church having employees to adopt a sexual harassment policy. Such a policy has a number of significant advantages. First, it will reduce the likelihood of such claims because a properly drafted policy will provide employees and employers with a definition of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is more likely to flourish where employees and employers lack a clear understanding of what it means. By clearly defining the term in a policy, employees will be effectively warned against behaviors, however "innocent," that cross the line. And, employers will be better informed about behavior that is inappropriate. In summary, a properly drafted sexual harassment policy can be an effective tool in reducing the risk of sexual harassment, and the turmoil that often is associated with such claims. Second, a sexual harassment policy will provide a church with a potent legal defense in the event of a sexual harassment claim. The assistance of an attorney is vital in the drafting of a sexual harassment policy. Carnesi v. Ferry Pass United Methodist Church, 770 So.2d 1286 (Fla. App. 2000).

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