Religious minorities should have the right to go to court and challenge discriminatory hiring practices imposed by the government, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has told the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In a friend-of-the-court brief in McCollum v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Americans United urged the appellate court to allow Patrick McCollum, a Wiccan clergyman, to challenge a state prison policy that limits paid chaplaincy positions to persons who are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or Native American.
“When government discriminates in hiring on religious grounds, those who are left out should have every right to sue,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Job candidates who face this type of religious discrimination should at the least have a chance to go to court and fight for their constitutional rights.”
McCollum is a qualified candidate for a chaplain position at the California Department of Corrections but cannot be considered for the job because of his religious beliefs. He brought a lawsuit against the prison, but a federal district court ruled that he lacked “standing” — the right to sue.
The court said a legal challenge to the prison’s chaplain policy can only be brought by an inmate, not someone seeking to be hired. In addition, the court denied McCollum’s claim because he could not prove he would be hired even if the state policy was changed. The court also denied McCollum’s standing as a taxpayer.
AU’s brief disputes these arguments, stating that the Constitution and civil rights law demand that McCollum have his day in court.
“More than simply being legally erroneous,” the brief asserts, “the [lower] court’s reasoning would inflict serious damage on the viability of all employment-discrimination claims.
“Whether the State needs to hire a Wiccan chaplain and, if so, whether McCollum is the right person for the job, may be unclear,” the brief continues. “What is clear, however, is that the district court erred in denying McCollum the chance to have his claims heard.”
Joining AU on the Nov. 30 brief are the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, The Interfaith Alliance and the Hindu American Foundation.
Americans United’s brief was drafted by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and AU Stephen Gey Fellow Devin Cain.