A federal judge in March 2019 dismissed a lawsuit that was brought against an Alabama church after it fired a pregnant woman who worked as a custodian in the church’s daycare.
In the lawsuit and related testimony, the woman contended she was fired because she was pregnant, a discriminatory act barred by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Church and daycare officials said the firing was not based on the woman’s pregnancy, but rather, her violation of its policies pertaining to sex outside of marriage, as well as efforts by her to “sow discord” among other workers.
The church initially filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed under the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.” The doctrine, which has developed over time through court decisions interpreting the First Amendment, essentially prevents civil courts from intervening in disputes that would require those courts to evaluate theology, church discipline, or moral standards.
But US Magistrate Judge Herman Johnson Jr. denied that motion, indicating he believed enough facts existed in the case to allow a court to make a decision without requiring it to evaluate theological or moral standards. As attorney and senior editor Richard Hammar noted in his analysis of the judge’s decision, even though the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine generally bars the civil courts from reviewing a church’s termination of an employee based on a violation of church doctrine, the courts are not prevented from ensuring that this was the actual basis for the church’s decision, rather than a pretext.”
With the case set to move forward, the church then filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed under a federal court rule that allows a judge to evaluate the undisputed facts in the case in the manner most favorable to the “nonmoving party”—in this case the woman—and determine whether it should still proceed. Again, the church argued the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine should apply because it believed the firing was based on a moral violation.
With this motion, Judge Johnson determined the dismissal of the lawsuit was appropriate.
“After reviewing the evidence before the court, [the woman] fails to establish that a reasonable factfinder may determine [the church] fired her because of her pregnancy,” the judge wrote.
The judge also explained:
“[T]he ecclesiastical abstention doctrine incites the subject matter jurisdiction of the court to adjudicate [plaintiff’s] claim. … [T]he facts regarding the ecclesiastical abstention determination comprise the same facts governing the Title VII pregnancy discrimination claim. … [T]he court’s authority to exercise subject matter jurisdiction over [the woman’s] claims turns on whether there exists any evidence in the record—taken in the light most favorable to [the woman] and according due regard for any genuine issue of material fact—that would enable a reasonable factfinder to determine [the church] discharged [the woman] because of her pregnancy rather than its religious doctrines. Based on the following analysis, there exists no such evidence.”
The Church Law & Tax Take
Before any church fires a nonministerial employee for a doctrinal or moral violation, it should consult with legal counsel. Additionally, and of significant importance, church leaders should review the specific facts highlighted in Judge Johnson’s opinion to make certain these types of policies and practices are consistently followed and/or observed with all nonministerial employees:
- During the meeting in which the woman was fired, church officials specifically told her the church was “discharging her because she violated religious doctrines regarding sexual conduct and cohabitation outside of marriage,” the judge wrote. While the woman contended she was told the termination was based on her pregnancy, she could not remember any other facts about the conversation and could not contradict or impeach the church officials’ testimony regarding the violation of religious doctrines. Additionally, the woman described a sense of “moral condemnation” after her discharge, which the judge believed reinforced the basis of the firing was the violation of religious doctrine, not “for merely being pregnant.”
- Prior to the termination, the daycare director spoke with the woman and the conversation included a statement about the Bible’s position on premarital sex, serving “as a strong indication that religious doctrine underlies [the church’s] justification,” the judge said.
- The church’s director of childcare, who was involved with the termination meeting, recorded a “near-contemporaneous account” of that meeting, which the judge found to contain further evidence supporting the church’s rationale.
- The church offered evidence it previously fired employees—both “male and female, pregnant and non-pregnant”—who were engaged in sexual misconduct. The church also offered evidence of other women it employed who were married, became pregnant, and did not lose their jobs. This evidence showed the church’s actions occurred because of “behaviors it deems immoral, not evidence of impermissible gender discrimination based upon pregnancy,” the judge wrote. Also, to further scrutinize moral behaviors, such as sex before marriage, the judge said, would require the court to analyze the church’s religious doctrine, violating the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
- Lastly, the woman signed a document during the application process that included the church’s “spiritual requirements for employment.”
To go deeper on employment discrimination issues, check out attorney and senior editor Richard R. Hammar’s Pastor, Church & Law, Fifth Edition.
Matthew Branaugh is editor of content and business development for Christianity Today’s Church Law & Tax.