May 11, 2021

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today will argue in a federal appeals court on behalf of Gregg Tucker, who was fired after he tried to address pervasive racism at the private school in Colorado where he worked as a teacher and director of student life.

The U.S. District Court in Colorado in May 2020 allowed Tucker’s case, Gregory Tucker v. Faith Bible Chapel International, to proceed, refusing to grant the school’s request to declare Tucker a “minister” and dismiss the case. But the school made the unprecedented move of appealing the judge’s order, even though the case is not at a status that typically could be appealed. The school wrongly argues that the court should just accept the school’s disputed contention that Tucker was a minister, and that the ministerial exception applies to his employment. The school wants to circumvent the legal process and deny Tucker his right to challenge the retaliation and discrimination he suffered.

Today at 9 a.m. MT, Americans United Litigation Counsel Bradley Girard will urge the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the school’s appeal and allow the case to proceed in the district court. Oral argument in the case will be live-streamed here and a recording made available on the court’s website here.

“Gregg Tucker’s case illustrates a frightening trend: Religious employers are urging courts to adopt an ever-broader interpretation of the ministerial exception. They want it applied not just to clergy and some private-school educators with significant religious duties, but to all employees at religious organizations,” said Girard. “The ministerial exception was meant to ensure that houses of worship could freely choose their clergy; it was never intended to be a free pass for any religious employer to discriminate against its entire workforce and sidestep civil-rights laws.

“Gregg Tucker was not a minister; he was an exemplary teacher and student-life director,” Girard said. “Gregg was fired because he tried to combat pervasive racism at the school. The court should not allow religious freedom to be distorted as a license to discriminate and deny basic civil rights.”

Case Background:

Gregg Tucker devoted 14 years of his life to working at Faith Christian Academy in Arvada, Colo. After Tucker and his wife adopted a daughter, who is Black, from the Dominican Republic, some students began to call Tucker and his family racial slurs. Tucker was even more dismayed by the unchecked racism some students directed at their Black, Hispanic and Asian classmates. With the school administration’s support, Tucker organized an anti-racism symposium for students in January 2018. While the event was overwhelmingly well received by administrators and families, a handful of parents objected. The school eventually caved in to the pressure of those parents and stripped Tucker of some of his duties, and then it fired him.

Tucker filed a federal lawsuit in June 2019 because the school violated his civil rights by retaliating against him when he opposed the school’s racially hostile environment.

The school is trying to exploit a legal doctrine called the “ministerial exception” to avoid responsibility for allowing Tucker to suffer racially motivated discrimination at work and for unjustly firing him. But Tucker was not a minister – he was not responsible for teaching theology, had no substantial religious functions as a part of his job, and when he inquired about a tax deduction available only to ministers, he was explicitly told by the school that he was not a minister.

In addition to Girard, Tucker’s legal team includes Americans United Vice President and Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and AU Madison Legal Fellow Adrianne Spoto, and from the Denver law firm Levin Sitcoff PC, attorneys Bradley A. Levin, Jeremy A. Sitcoff and Peter G. Friesen.

Resources

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. Learn more at www.au.org.