Pastor, Church & Law

Employer “Retaliation” Against Victims of Discrimination

§ 8.16

Key Point 8-16. State and federal civil rights laws generally prohibit employers from retaliating against an employee for filing a discrimination claim or otherwise exercising rights provided by the law.

Many federal and state civil rights laws that ban discrimination in employment prohibit employers from “retaliating” against employees who oppose discriminatory practices or pursue claims of discrimination. To illustrate, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,125 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act,126 29 U.S.C. § 623(d).and the Americans with Disabilities Act127 42 U.S.C. § 12203.all prohibit employer retaliation.

Case studies

  • The Colorado Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit brought by a woman alleging that her church acted improperly and unlawfully when it dismissed her after she made complaints of sexual harassment against another minister. The woman alleged that her stepfather committed various acts of sexual assault against her when she was a minor. Her stepfather was a minister at the time, and later became president of his denomination. The woman pursued ministerial studies and was licensed as a minister. She later learned that her stepfather was harassing female church employees and parishioners in another church, and she reported this to denominational officers. In response, the stepfather filed charges with the denomination against the woman, claiming that her allegations were false and demanding a full investigation. After an investigation, denominational officers revoked the woman’s license and denied her the opportunity to open a new church. The woman responded by filing a lawsuit against her stepfather, and her denomination, alleging several theories of liability including illegal retaliation by denominational officials in response to her charges of sexual harassment, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court rejected this claim on the ground that it arose from the denomination’s decision to revoke her minister’s license. The court concluded that it was barred from resolving the woman’s lawsuit on the basis of the First Amendment’s free exercise and nonestablishment of religion clauses.128 Van Osdol v. Vogt, 908 P.2d 402 (Colo. 1996).
  • A male associate pastor engaged in sexual relations with two female church employees. The two women eventually disclosed the affairs to the church’s senior pastor. This led to their termination, and the forced resignation of the associate pastor. The women later sued the church, claiming that it committed unlawful “retaliation” against them in violation of Title VII by dismissing them for disclosing the associate pastor’s behavior. A federal district court disagreed, noting that the church could not be responsible for retaliation since its decision to dismiss the women was not sex discrimination. This conclusion was affirmed on appeal by a federal appeals court.129 Sanders v. Casa View Baptist Church, 134 F.3d 331 (5th Cir. 1998).The court observed: “The [women] did not … produce any evidence suggesting that they were fired because of their gender. In fact, the record shows that [the former minister], who also committed adultery, was forced to resign, and that [the church’s] position against adultery was neutral with respect to sex, longstanding, and understood by both [women] at the time they engaged in sexual conduct with [the minister].”
  • A federal court in California ruled that a female minister failed to prove that her denominational agency had engaged in sexual harassment.130 Himaka v. Buddhist Churches of America, 917 F.Supp. 698 (N.D. Cal. 1995).A woman (the victim) was employed as national director of a department of a denominational agency (the Buddhist Churches of America, or BCA). She was ordained as a Buddhist minister. She alleged that another minister made a sexually harassing telephone call to her during a BCA conference. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regarding the harassing call. She later sued the BCA in federal court, claiming that it had engaged in unlawful “retaliation” against her by cutting off all funding of her department following the filing of her EEOC claim. The court noted that to prove a “prima facie case” of unlawful retaliation, a plaintiff must establish that she acted to protect her Title VII rights, that an adverse employment action was thereafter taken against her, and that a connection existed between these two events. At that point, the burden of production then shifts to the employer to advance legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for any adverse actions taken against the plaintiff. The court concluded that it could not resolve the victim’s retaliation claim, since “[i]f plaintiff makes out a prima facie case of retaliation, the court would be placed in the position of evaluating whether BCA had any legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for the defunding of [her] department. … Although the financial decisions of a church are not, strictly speaking, part of the church’s “spiritual function,” these decisions remain vital to a religious organization’s ministerial and religious planning. Determining whether the decision to eliminate funding from [the victim’s] department—a religious education department—was legitimate seems likely to draw this court into judgments on matters of faith and doctrine, as well as matters of general church governance. Because it appears that plaintiff’s retaliation claim would result in an intolerably close relationship between church and state both on a substantive and procedural level, plaintiff’s retaliation claim is dismissed … on First Amendment grounds.

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