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Religious Organizations Exempt from Title VII Provisions Prohibiting Discrimination Based on Religion

Posted: September 15, 2011 Filed under: Case Law, Employment Law, Uncategorized

If you work for a faith-based organization, don’t expect protection from discrimination directed toward you own beliefs. That was the message sent by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Kennedy v. St. Joseph’s Ministries, Inc., No. 10-1792 (4th Cir. September 14, 2011).

Kennedy involved the termination of a 13-year employee’s employment after she refused to stop wearing long dresses and a cover for her hair, which “was a function of her religious beliefs” as a member of the Church of the Brethren. The employer, a nursing-care facility operated “under the direction of the Daughters of Charity, a religious order within the Roman Catholic Church” and maintained “in accordance with Catholic principles” asked Kennedy to modify her attire because it “was inappropriate for a Catholic facility and … made residents and their family members feel uncomfortable.”

The district court interpreted Title VII’s exemption for religious organizations as prohibiting a lawsuit for the termination of Kennedy’s employment, but it ruled the nursing home could be liable for harassment and retaliation based on Kennedy’s religious beliefs. Applying the plain language of the federal statute, the Fourth Circuit’s 2-1 opinion rejected the incongruous logic of the district court. It also reaffirmed that even religious organizations remain liable for other forms of prohibited discrimination: “Section 2000e-1(a) does not exempt religious organizations from Title VII’s provisions barring discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or national origin.”

With regard to religious discrimination, however, the court pointed to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1(a), which provides:

This subchapter [of Title VII] shall not apply to a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.

The meaning of this plain language, the court said, permits religious organizations to “terminate an employee whose conduct or religious beliefs are inconsistent with those of its employer.” Because religious organizations can terminate employees for religious reasons, the court reasoned it would be incompatible with the actual language of the statute to exclude other types of adverse employment decisions, short of hiring and firing. Limiting the exemption to hiring and firing decisions would also “lead to nonsensical results,” the majority wrote.

Kennedy’s view of the statute would counsel religious organizations to immediately discharge an employee over any religious issue rather than consider some attempt at compromise to permit the employee to remain employed.

For those interested in appellate procedure, Kennedy is also interesting in that it was decided as an interlocutory appeal rather than following entry of final judgment. Additionally, the dissenting judge, who would have discharged jurisdiction and not decided the issue presented, was one of the Fourth Circuit judges who earlier voted to grant interlocutory review in the case.

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