A case before the District Court of Northern Indiana highlights the increasingly litigated line between religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws. In the case, a former Catholic school teacher claims that the St. Vincent de Paul School discriminated against her, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
The claim in Herx v. Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend Inc. et al arises out of the school’s firing of a teacher for undergoing in vitro fertilization treatment, referred to as “an intrinsic evil” by the Diocese bishop. The Indiana Catholic Diocese, which runs the church, claims it is protected against Herx’s claims by religious exemptions in Title VII and the ADA, as well as by the ministerial exceptions in these laws. The Diocese’s claims typify the lack of clarity surrounding what a religious employer can and cannot do. While Title VII and the ADA do contain exemptions for religious employers who make employment decisions based on an employee’s religious status, the Acts do not allow a religious employer to make such decisions based upon other protected statuses such as race, gender or national origin.
While this may seem to leave the religious beliefs of employers very little protection, both Acts also contain a ministerial exception. The ministerial exception, recently expanded in the Supreme Court case Hossana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, exempts religious employers from anti-discrimination laws when dealing with employees who qualify as “ministers.” The Supreme Court has not yet delineated a clear test for who qualifies as a “minister,” however, factors include the employee’s title, duties, religiosity of the tasks performed and voluntary allowances on their tax returns. Under a fact-based analysis, these factors weigh on whether an employee has ministerial status. In the present case, however, the Diocese’ argument that Herx, a teacher, falls under the ministerial exception is a bit tenuous, given that she is a female who never attended seminary in a church with only male priests.
This case is a great example of how difficult it can be for religious employers to know where they stand in relation to anti-discrimination laws. Before making any employment decisions based on religious beliefs, religious employers should consult counsel in order to avoid costly litigation.