The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the circuit court that governs Florida, Georgia, and Alabama) just recently handed down a decision that allowed a case filed by a Christian schoolteacher who was fired for engaging in premarital sex to go to trial. The case is a lesson for Christian ministries in what is necessary to protect against discrimination lawsuits.
The Eleventh Circuit succinctly stated the facts of the case in the opening of its opinion. It said: “A woman of childbearing age was hired as a teacher at a small Christian school. Then she got pregnant, married, and fired. In that order. Then she filed a lawsuit.” The school claimed that the teacher was fired because she engaged in premarital sex which the school viewed as sinful. The teacher claimed that she was discriminated against because she was pregnant. Normally, such claims by a Christian schoolteacher would be prohibited by the “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws. The ministerial exception was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. You can read more about that case and the facts of it at this link. Basically, the ministerial exception means that employees of a church or religious organization that are treated as “ministers” cannot bring a lawsuit claiming they have been discriminated against because a church or religious organization has the right to decide for itself who will be its ministers. In the Hosanna-Tabor case, the “minister” was a Christian schoolteacher who claimed she was terminated because of a disability while the school claimed she was terminated for conduct that violated the religious beliefs of the school. In a 9-0 unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Christian school to decide for itself who would be its ministers.
In the Eleventh Circuit’s recent opinion, it held that the school had abandoned the claim that its schoolteacher was a “minister” and could not argue that the teacher was prevented from bringing suit under the ministerial exception. The court held that the case needed to go to trial to find out what was the “real” reason the teacher was fired. There are some legal technicalities involved in the decision that are not relevant here. But what is relevant is that the court’s decision illustrates that Christian schools and other religious organizations must take the necessary steps to protect themselves from claims of workplace discrimination. One such important step is to accurately define, through job descriptions, which employees are considered “ministers” of the religious organization. Each job position should be described with particular detail how it relates to the religious mission of the school or organization and how it functions to carry out that religious mission. The organization should also describe itself as religious in its bylaws and have a statement of faith it can rely on to make decisions about employment.
Another step is to contact ADF if your religious organization is ever faced with a workplace discrimination claim. Taking some of these proactive steps will help if a claim of workplace discrimination arises. You can check out the resources on the SpeakUpChurch website and particularly our document about the application of anti-discrimination laws to religious organizations for some practical suggestions. And if your ministry is ever faced with a claim of workplace discrimination, call us at (800) TELL-ADF or contact us through our website so one of our attorneys can review the situation to see if we can help.