Last month, Waldron Mercy Academy, a K-8 Catholic school located in Merion, Pennsylvania, fired Margie Winters from her position as Director of Religious Education, a job she had held for 8 years. According to Ms. Winters, her employment contract was not renewed because she is gay and married to her partner. A few days later, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which it held that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. The majority opinion in Obergefell stated that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage, but did not however, address or reverse the precedent established by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in which the Supreme Court held, in an unrelated context, that churches have the right to make employment decisions free from government interference, including compliance with anti-discrimination laws.
Indeed, in an e-mail to parents, the principal of Waldron Mercy Academy advised that Ms. Winters was no longer working at the school, and reiterated the school’s dedication to Catholicism, stating: “Many of us accept life choices that contradict current church teachings . . . but to continue as a Catholic school, Waldron Mercy must comply with those teachings.”
Based on the 2012 precedent established in Hosanna, it is not clear that Ms. Winter has any valid legal challenge to Waldron Mercy’s termination decision, which would violate the laws of many states, if a non-religious organization were involved. Currently, twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 18 states and D.C. also prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. And, Lower Merion Township, the home of Waldron Mercy Academy, also has a local antidiscrimination ordinance which provides that it is the public policy of Lower Merion Township to foster the employment of all individuals in accordance with their fullest capacities regardless of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. The ordinance further provides, however, that it is not unlawful for religious institutions that are “not supported in whole or in part by governmental appropriations” to refuse to hire or employ an individual on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
In Hosanna, still the leading case on the application of anti-discrimination laws to religious organizations, the Court barred the Plaintiff from bringing an employment discrimination suit against the school. The plaintiff had been promoted to a “called” teacher at the “Christ-centered education” school, but had taken leave after being diagnosed with narcolepsy. After her leave, school officials refused to hire her back. Plaintiff argued that she was fired from the school in violation of the ADA and Michigan state law. The Supreme Court found that the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” (which exempts religious organization from anti-discrimination laws) applied because the school held the Plaintiff out as a minister, and because her job duties reflected a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its religious mission.
Thus, even with the passing of numerous state and local ordinances and the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, it appears for the moment that religious institutions will continue to be exempt from statutes prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity and that certain employees of such religious institutions may be barred from bringing suit against the organizations. In Hosanna, the Supreme Court stated that the “ministerial exception” should apply to any employee “who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.” The recent termination at Waldron Mercy and the Obergefell decision are a reminder to employers operating religious institutions that significant questions may remain about the scope and proper application of the ministerial exception.