Christian Campus Ministry Allowed to Terminate Employee for Marital Problems, Sixth Circuit Says

Most employers and employees are aware that churches may legally make certain hiring and firing decisions that would otherwise be impermissible if the employer were not a religious institution. But what about religion-related employers that are not churches or church-based entities? In a very noteworthy case for Tennessee employers and employees, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an entity dedicated to collegiate campus ministry could terminate a “spiritual director” for failing to repair her failing marriage.

The case arose after InterVarsity Christian Fellowship terminated Alyce Conlon in 2011. Conlon had worked as a spiritual director for the evangelical entity since 2004, but in 2011, she confided in her supervisors that she and her husband were contemplating divorcing. The fellowship put her on leave for the purpose of working to salvage her marriage. By December, with the employee’s marriage still on the rocks, InterVarsity terminated Conlon. Conlon’s husband filed for divorce a month later.

The director sued, contending that her termination was the result of sex discrimination. Specifically, Conlon contended that two male colleagues had gotten divorced, and, not only did InterVarsity not fire them, it did not discipline them at all. The fellowship asked the court to throw the case out, arguing that its action was permissible because Conlon was a ministerial employee. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case.

On appeal, the Sixth¬†Circuit also agreed with the fellowship. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion shields religious employers from Title VII and other discrimination claims launched by ministers. An employer’s first step in¬†using a ministerial exception to defeat a discrimination lawsuit is to prove that it is qualified to assert the exception. In addition to churches, denominations, synagogues, and mosques, or an entity operated by one of those institutions, qualifying employers also include all entities whose “mission is marked by clear or obvious religious characteristics.” The court in Conlon’s case ruled that, even though InterVarsity was not a church, its undisputed purpose was to “advance the understanding and practice of Christianity in colleges and universities,” meaning that it was a “religious group” under the law.

Additionally, the employee must qualify as working in a ministerial capacity. This definition includes not only priests, pastors, and rabbis but also any employee whose title and duties indicated a ministerial function. Conlon’s job title was described as a “spiritual director” or “spiritual formation specialist.” Part of the director’s express duties included assisting others in establishing “growth in Christ-like character through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines.” Given that Conlon’s job was religious in both name and function, it qualified as a ministerial position, meaning that InterVarsity was free to terminate the director.

Some religious leaders, including the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, hailed the ruling as a victory for religious freedom.

Clearly, the decision affords religious employers in Tennessee a degree of latitude regarding how they handle certain employees. For answers to your questions about workplace sex discrimination, call the experienced Tennessee employment discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Whether you’re an employee or employer, our attorneys have the skills and background you need to provide you with the finest advice and representation.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Tennessee Employer Did Not Unlawfully Discriminate Against Prospective Employee Who Refused to Provide Social Security Number on Religious Grounds, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, March 4, 2015

A Look at Recent Title VII Decisions, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Dec. 10, 2014

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