Americans United for Separation of Church and State celebrated today’s opinion by a federal appeals court that allows a lawsuit filed by former teacher and director of student life Gregg Tucker to proceed against the private Christian school in Colorado that fired him after he tried to address pervasive racism there.
Gregg Tucker was an exemplary teacher at Faith Christian Academy in Arvada, Colo. When he tried to combat extensive racism his family and many Black, Hispanic and Asian students faced there, he was fired. Tucker fought back in court, where Faith Christian Academy argued that he was a “minister” and therefore that firing him was a matter of faith that the federal courts could not decide.
Today, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed Tucker’s case alleging race discrimination under Title VII, Gregory Tucker v. Faith Bible Chapel International, to advance by refusing the school’s demand to declare Tucker a “minister” and dismiss the case. Now, Tucker gets 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. 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.
“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 Tenth Circuit’s decision allows Gregg to prove that in court.”
The school 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 wrongly argued that the court should just accept the school’s disputed contention that Tucker was a minister, before that factual question was answered, and dismiss the case. The school wanted to circumvent the legal process and deny Tucker his right to challenge the retaliation and discrimination he suffered. But the court rightly rejected those arguments.
Gregg Tucker devoted 14 years of his life to working at Faith Christian Academy in Arvada, Colo., as a teacher and director of student life. 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.
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, attorneys Bradley A. Levin, Jeremy A. Sitcoff and Peter G. Friesen.
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.
Associate Vice President of Communications