According to a recent U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, workers fired by the religious organizations that employed them are unable to raise allegations of employment discrimination, a potential blow to religious workers nationwide.

In Conlon v. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, the plaintiff worked as a spiritual director for the defendant, an evangelical campus mission serving students and faculty at colleges and universities around the country. As required by IVCF’s employment policy, Conlon told her supervisors that she was having marital problems and considering a divorce, after which she was placed on paid leave. When she later informed her supervisors that she was, in fact, getting a divorce, she was fired. She filed suit claiming the defendant wrongfully terminated her in violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act and Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act by discriminating against her based on her gender.

The “ministerial exception” is a legal doctrine that protects religious freedoms by exempting religious institutions from discrimination claims in employment matters. It is based upon the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, which allows churches to decide matters of governance without interference from the government.

Agreeing with IVCF’s assertion that the ministerial exception applied, the trial court dismissed the case. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit relied on a previous U.S. Supreme Court case that established four factors to establish an employee’s “minister” status:

  • The formal title given by the church
  • The substance reflected in that title
  • The worker’s own use of that title
  • The important religious functions she performed for the church.

Conlon reiterated her argument that she was not a minister, was not employed by a “church,” and that IVCF waived the exception by stating in its employment manuals that it is an equal opportunity employer that does not discriminate.  Despite her claims, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision to dismiss, finding that the first and fourth factors were present in the case, while also ruling that the ministerial exception applies to not only churches but also religious organizations, and that it cannot be waived.

As the National Law Review wrote in the headline of an article discussing the decision, the ruling makes clear that, ironically, “religious employers can hire (and fire) for religious reasons.”

If you, a family member, or someone you know has been the victim of workplace discrimination, the attorneys in Sommers Schwartz Employment Litigation Group can help you determine your legal rights, which can include damages for lost wages.  Please contact us today to discuss your situation.