Do Church Employees Sacrifice Civil Rights?

The Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana agreed with Orange County Superior Court Judge Derek Hunt’s ruling in favor of a Tustin church’s decision to fire a preschool director because she violated a church precept, the Orange County Register reported on December 13, 2011. Sara Henry filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Red Hill Lutheran Church following her dismissal in May 2009 for continuing to live while unmarried with her boyfriend with whom she had a child.

After her marriage ended, the Register reported that Henry lived with her boyfriend and became pregnant. The church did not fire her for having a baby out of wedlock and Henry returned to work in 2007 after the birth of her son. When the school’s principal “learned parents were talking about Henry’s living arrangements” towards the end of 2008, the school asked her to make a decision.

“What the church could not allow was to have Henry, its face and representative to the students and parents of the students who attended its school, to continue living in what it considered a sinful manner. In other words, if Henry stopped living with her boyfriend she could continue in her job,” the panel of jurists said, according to the Register.

The court said the church does not qualify as an “employer” under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and Henry was terminated for religious reasons for which the church and school are exempt under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Register also reported that the court said her suit is barred by the ministerial exception which “protects religious organizations from the normally attendant adverse consequences of employment discrimination.”

What are your feelings about this exemption to the Civil Rights Act? Do you feel that churches like Red Hill Lutheran should be allowed to terminate employees based upon their private lives outside of work, or was Henry a victim of discrimination at work?

Law Offices of Kesluk, Silverstein & Jacob – Los Angeles employment attorneys


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