July/August 2022 Church & State Magazine

Colo. Religious School Teacher Wins Right To Pursue Claim Of Unlawful Dismissal

  Colo. Religious School Teacher Wins Right To Pursue Claim Of Unlawful Dismissal

A federal appeals court ruled on June 7 that a lawsuit filed by a former teacher and director of student life against a private Christian school in Colorado that fired him after he tried to address pervasive racism there may proceed.

Gregg Tucker was an exemplary teacher at Faith Christian Academy in Arvada, Colo. When he tried to combat the extensive racism his family and many Black, Hispanic and Asian students faced at the institution, he was fired. Backed by the legal team at Americans United, Tucker fought back in court.

Faith Christian Academy argued that Tucker was a “minister,” and therefore firing him was a matter of faith the federal courts could not decide. But the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed Tucker’s case alleging race discrimination under Title VII to advance by refusing the school’s demand to declare Tucker a “minister” and immediately dismiss the case.

Americans United lauded the ruling, noting that Tucker should have the right to litigate the case and attempt to vindicate his rights.

“The court’s decision today is a win for the rule of law and a critical step in our fight to prevent the weaponization of religious freedom,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “Gregg Tucker was fired because he tried to combat pervasive racism at the school. The courts should not allow religious freedom to be distorted as a license to discriminate and deny basic civil rights.

“This case brings to light a dangerous trend: The school’s attorneys and religious employers 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,” Laser added. “The ministerial exception was never intended to put religious employers above the law or permit them to discriminate against all workers and sidestep civil-rights laws.”

She concluded, “These employers want the ministerial exception applied not just to clergy and some private school educators with significant religious duties, but to all employees at religious organizations. This doctrine should not apply to Gregg Tucker, who was not a minister. We are gratified that the 10th Circuit’s decision allows Gregg to prove that in court.”

Faith Christian Academy had made the unprecedented move of appealing a district court order allowing the case to proceed, even though such appeals are not permitted until after litigation has resolved certain questions, including whether or not Tucker is a “minister.” The school argued that the court should just accept the school’s disputed contention that Tucker was a minister before that factual question was answered, and so peremptorily dismiss the case. The school wanted to circumvent the legal process and deny Tucker his right to challenge the retaliation and discrimination he suffered. The court rejected those arguments.

Tucker devoted 14 years of his life to working at Faith Christian Aca­demy as a teacher and director of student life. After Tucker and his wife adopted a Black Afro-Hispanic daughter native to 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, first by stripping away some of Tucker’s job duties and then by firing him outright.

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

In court, the school sought to exploit a legal doctrine called the “ministerial exception” to avoid responsibility for inflicting on Tucker racially motivated workplace discrimination and finally for unjustly firing him. But AU argues that Tucker was not a minister – he was not responsible for teaching theology, had no substantial job-related religious functions, and when he inquired about a tax deduction available only to ministers was explicitly told by the school he was not a minister.

Tucker’s legal team includes Americans United Litigation Counsel Bradley Girard, who argued the case before the 10th Circuit in May 2021; AU Vice President and Legal Director Richard B. Katskee; AU Madison Legal Fellow Adrianne Spoto; and from the Denver law firm Levin Sitcoff PC represented by attorneys Bradley A. Levin, Jeremy A. Sitcoff and Peter G. Friesen.

The case is Tucker v. Faith Bible Chapel International.

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