Religious institutions are afforded a limited exemption from the statutory prohibition against religious discrimination set forth in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). This exemption permits religious institutions to require individuals hired to work in connection with the organization’s religious activities to adhere to the same religious beliefs as the employing organization. Religious institutions also may be able to rely on this exemption as a defense against claims alleging non-religion-based discrimination, such as sex or pregnancy discrimination. For example, a religious institution may assert that an employee was terminated, not because she was pregnant, but because she violated the organization’s religious tenets or code of conduct.
The courts will, however, carefully scrutinize the facts of each case to determine whether the employer’s challenged employment decision was motivated by an impermissible criterion (such as the employee’s pregnancy) or a permissible criterion (such as enforcing religious tenets). Religious institutions seeking to defend their actions based on the religious exemption must be able to show that their decision was based on the permissible criterion and was not influenced by the impermissible criterion. Sending “mixed messages” about the real reason for the decision will undercut the employer’s ability to secure summary dismissal of the employee’s claim. A good example of this is discussed below in Hamilton v. Southland Christian Sch., Inc. Religious institutions also must be able to show that they have uniformly applied the religious tenet, upon which the challenged employment decision was based, to males and females alike. Evidence of disparate treatment will defeat the organization’s defense and subject it to liability for sex discrimination.
Religious institutions also should remember that unless the “ministerial exception” applies, they are subject to all of the other prohibitions against employment discrimination set forth in Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and comparable state and local equal employment opportunity laws. This includes, but is not limited to, discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, pregnancy, national origin, disability and age. Under a recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, the “ministerial exception” is an affirmative defense that must be raised and proven by the religious institution. In addition, the courts still are defining the precise contours of the ministerial exception, in terms of the employees to whom it applies, the employment decisions that it encompasses and the types of claims that it bars. Therefore, religious institutions are well advised to proceed cautiously when making and implementing employment decisions at any level.