AU’s Top 10 Of 2022: Preventing Religious Employers From Exploiting The Ministerial Exception And Violating Workers’ Rights

  Liz Hayes

Editor’s Note: This week and next, “The Wall of Separation” is recounting the top 10 church-state stories from 2022. Today’s post looks at AU’s work to prevent religious employers from exploiting the “ministerial exception” to sidestep civil rights laws that protect workers.

Americans United notched several victories this year for our clients who are fighting attempts by religious employers to claim they are above law.

Many religious employers and Christian nationalist groups are urging courts to adopt an ever-broader interpretation of the “ministerial exception,” which was meant to ensure that houses of worship could freely choose their clergy. These employers want the ministerial exception applied not just to clergy and some private-school educators with significant religious duties, but to virtually all employees at religious organizations. The ministerial exception was never intended to give religious employers free rein to discriminate against all workers and ignore civil-rights laws.

“Religious extremists are waging a crusade to expand a commonsense rule that allows houses of worship to select their own clergy according to their own faith, into a means to avoid liability for bigotry and discrimination,” AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said. “If allowed to continue, the expanded doctrine will allow any nominally religious organization to hire and fire any employee for any reason or none, so long as the organization can include a religious duty in a contract.”

Private School Teacher Fired For Addressing Racism

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice this year ruled in favor of Gregg Tucker, a former teacher and director of student life at a private Christian school in Colorado that fired him after he tried to address pervasive racism there.

After Gregg and his wife adopted a daughter, who is Black, some students began to call him and his family racial slurs. He was even more dismayed by the unchecked racism some students directed at their Black, Hispanic and Asian classmates. With the school administration’s support, Gregg 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 to the pressure of those parents and stripped Gregg of some of his duties, and then it fired him.

Gregg 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. This summer, the 10th Circuit allowed Gregg’s case to advance by refusing the school’s demand to declare him a “minister” and dismiss the case. In November, the appeals court declined the school’s request for the entire court to review the case. Now, Gregg gets to litigate the case and attempt to vindicate his rights.

Orthodox Christian Priest Libeled And Defamed By Church Officials

In August, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals similarly allowed the defamation case of Father Alexander Belya to proceed.

Father Belya was falsely accused of forging documents to gain a position as Bishop of Miami within his Orthodox denomination. Church officials libeled him and dragged his reputation through the mud in letters and social media posts. The defamation severely hampered his prospects for future employment.

After Father Belya filed his federal defamation case in August 2020, the defendants argued that the ministerial exception and another esoteric legal concept, the church-autonomy doctrine, shields them from litigation or any requirement to answer for their unlawful behavior in a court of law. The 2nd Circuit disagreed and allowed his case to continue.

College Professor Denied Tenure For Supporting LGBTQ Rights

Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, a professor of social work at a Christian liberal arts school in Massachusetts, also can continue her case alleging Gordon College denied her a promotion because of her gender and because she challenged the school’s policies toward LGBTQ students.

Gordon College in 2016 denied tenure to Margaret, who has taught at the school for more than 20 years and despite the Faculty Senate recommending her for the promotion. When she sued to challenge this unlawful discrimination, the school claimed it can’t be held liable because of the ministerial exception.

When the Massachusetts courts refused to dismiss Margaret’s case, the school asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in. In February, the Supreme Court declined to take the case, meaning Margaret can move forward with her civil-rights claims.

Private School Guidance Counselor Fired For Marrying Her Same-Sex Partner

In October, AU announced it will appeal the dismissal of the federal lawsuit brought by Shelly Fitzgerald, a high school guidance counselor fired by Roncalli High School and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis because she is married to a woman.

Shelly was a loved and trusted guidance counselor for fifteen years at her alma mater. In 2018, four years after Shelly married Victoria, her partner of more than two decades, school officials called Shelly into a meeting and said her relationship was contrary to Catholic Church teachings. They gave her four heartbreaking “options”: dissolve her marriage; resign her position; “keep quiet” about why she was being fired until her one-year contract was up and then be let go; or immediately be fired.

When Shelly refused to dissolve her marriage or resign, the school placed her on administrative leave. The school told Shelly in 2019 that her contract would not be renewed; she filed a federal lawsuit later that year.

On Sept. 30, a federal district court judge wrongly accepted the school’s argument that courts cannot even examine Shelly’s claims because of the ministerial exception. AU is appealing that decision to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Black minister smiling
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