A newly filed EEOC charge alleges that The Holy Family Catholic Community in Inverness, Ill fired its 17-year music director when the director announced on Facebook that he had just become an engaged to his male partner.  This, according to the Portland Press Herald.

See: http://www.pressherald.com/2014/12/06/music-director-fired-by-church-files-claim-for-discrimination/

gay weddings : Closeup of a gay couple holding hands, wearing a wedding ring. Couple is a hispanic man and a caucasian man.

The director, who alleges sex, sexual orientation and marital status discrimination, stated that he was told that “his same-sex relationship violated the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago declined comment.

An Earlier Case

This case is strikingly similar to one we wrote about last February.

The Boston Globe and Boston.com reported what then may have been a legal first – a case filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) against a religiously affiliated college prep school by a gay man who claimed that his offer of employment was withdrawn after the school discovered that he listed a “husband” as his emergency contact.

The applicant was offered a job as food services director, but claimed that a school official said that “the Catholic religion doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, and that was her excuse.  She said, ‘We cannot hire you.’  If I’m planning and making meals for students, I’m not sure what my being gay has to do with the job. All I did was fill out the form honestly.”

He alleged sex and sexual orientation discrimination.

His attorney said that “There is a balance between important values, which are religious liberties, and discriminatory practices. This is a job that has nothing to do with religion . . . and this weighs toward discrimination.  Religiously affiliated entities do not have a free pass to do as they please in how they treat employees, particularly when it comes to our important laws against discrimination.”

The Ministerial Exception

Both cases involve what is called the “ministerial exception.”

On January 11, 2012, we reported about a significant First Amendment religious freedom decision involving the “ministerial exception” which was decided that day by the Supreme Court, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The Court had before it a teacher in a religious institution who taught both secular subjects and a class in religion. When she threatened to file a charge of disability when a new teacher was hired to replace her, she was fired for insubordination. Her case involved a head-to-head confrontation between First Amendment religious freedom and the anti-discrimination employment laws.

At issue before the Court was the definition of “minister,” because” the “ministerial exception” holds, in effect, that the government should not get involved in internal church affairs involving “ministers,” and therefore courts should not become embroiled in lawsuits involving “ministers.”

The unanimous Court held that the religious institution must be free to choose its own ministers without state involvement: “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” but “so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.”

Non-Ministerial Duties

In a post in June 2013, we reported that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati fired a non-Catholic computer teacher in a parochial school allegedly for violating an employment contract requiring her “to conform with Catholic doctrine, which considers pregnancy out of wedlock through artificial means ‘gravely immoral.’”

Did the ministerial exception apply to her and thus permit her firing?

Plaintiff was a female non-Catholic, gay, unmarried parochial school computer teacher. She claimed that she was fired for being pregnant and unmarried.  Prior to trial, the archdiocese lost a motion based upon the recognized “ministerial exception,” since although Plaintiff was a non-Catholic (and thus did not conform to “Catholic doctrine”) she taught only computer classes (and not, for example, religion classes) and was even barred under church rules from teaching religion to her elementary school students.

Therefore, since she did not have ministerial duties in teaching computer classes, the exception did not apply, and a federal jury in Ohio agreed with her and awarded her $171,000 in damages and back pay.

The anti-discrimination laws trumped religious considerations in that case.

With respect to the Massachusetts case in early 2014, a Boston lawyer, Nancy Shilepsky, was quoted as saying that “Our Supreme Judicial Court takes a serious look at issues involving religious liberty and at issues involving discrimination.  They are careful to try to strike the appropriate balance.”

Takeaway

“Balance” and “accommodation” are always key in analyzing religious discrimination cases, or cases where religious practices are involved.