Fighting Discrimination

AU’s Top Ten of 2023: Preventing religious freedom from being weaponized against workers

  Liz Hayes

Editor’s Note: For the next two weeks, “The Wall of Separation” blog will recount the top 10 church-state stories from 2023. Today we recap AU’s legal efforts to ensure workers at religious institutions can seek justice in court.

Religious freedom is not a license to harm others or prevent people from seeking justice in courts of law. But some religious employers and their attorneys at Shadow Network legal groups are trying to weaponize religious freedom to do just that.

They are urging courts to adopt ever-broader interpretations of two legal doctrines known as the ministerial exception and the church-autonomy doctrine. The ministerial exception was meant to ensure that houses of worship could freely choose their clergy and teachers of faith. It is not a license for any religious employer to discriminate against its entire workforce.

The church-autonomy doctrine prohibits courts from wading into a religious institution’s internal religious disputes, but some employers are attempting to use it as a general opt-out for all sorts of religious institutions from a wide range of laws, especially anti-discrimination laws.

AU represents several people who are fighting in court for justice after being discriminated against or harmed by their religious employers.

Supreme Court declines to hear AU case

In June, AU celebrated a win when the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not hear Synod of Bishops v. Belya. AU represents Father Alexander Belya, an Orthodox Christian priest who was publicly defamed by his colleagues.

Because the Supreme Court declined his employer’s request to hear this case, litigation will continue in the lower courts.

“This case is far from over, but Father Alexander Belya now has a chance to vindicate his rights,” AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said. “AU believes religious freedom should be a shield, not a sword. Today, the Court let that principle stand.”

Alleged gender discrimination at Moody Bible Institute

Earlier this month, AU Litigation Counsel Bradley Girard argued in court on behalf of AU client Janay Garrick. She was a teacher in the communications department at Moody Bible Institute who began experiencing and witnessing rampant sex discrimination at the college. She filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination, which the college moved to dismiss by arguing in part that the church-autonomy doctrine barred her claims.

Seventh Circuit rules against Shelly Fitzgerald

Shelly Fitzgerald was a beloved and trusted guidance counselor at her alma mater, Roncalli High School in Indiana, for fourteen years. But in 2018, when the school learned she was married to a woman, administrators gave her four heartbreaking “options”: dissolve her marriage; resign; be fired immediately; or be fired at the end of her one-year contract if she would “keep quiet” about why she was being fired. Shelly refused to divorce her wife, Victoria, or resign, so the school placed her on administrative leave, banned her from campus and did not renew her contract.

After Shelly sued for this violation of her civil rights, the school and its lawyers exploited the ministerial exception, claiming it barred Shelly from pursuing justice. In July, citing a similar case, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and ruled in the school’s favor.

AU’s Laser denounced the decision: “Shelly Fitzgerald, like most employees at religious organizations, wasn’t hired to minister to students or to preach the Catholic religion. She was hired to provide secular guidance to students seeking to get into college. She should not have lost her civil rights simply because the secular work she performed was done at a religious school.

“I also want to commend our plaintiff, Shelly Fitzgerald, for courageously speaking up on behalf of all people vulnerable to discrimination in the name of religion,” Laser added. “Shelly and brave people like her are on the front lines warning the American people about the very real threats we face from a shadowy network of religious extremists working to turn religious freedom from a shield into a sword to harm others and violate their rights.”

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New Speaker of the House Mike Johnson worked at ADF, a Christian Nationalist outfit and leader in the Shadow Network, for more than a decade. Now, he's in one of the most powerful offices in the world. Please donate now to help AU protect religious freedom and church-state separation.

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