Recent Pregnancy Discrimination Verdict May Lead To Revisiting The “Ministerial Exception” To A Federal Anti-Discrimination Claim

That pesky First Amendment.  Always causing trouble.

As has been widely reported (for example, here and here), an Ohio jury recently awarded former Catholic school computer technology teacher Christa Dias more than $170,000 in her federal anti-discrimination lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

Plaintiff claimed that she was fired because she was pregnant (due to artificial insemination) and unmarried.  Defendants argued plaintiff was fired for violating her contract, which required her to comply with Catholic teachings (which artificial insemination violates).

Legal experts are already discussing how this verdict may be attacked on appeal, in light of the fact that plaintiff’s employer was a religious institution.

Ordinarily, it is unlawful to fire an employee because they are pregnant (or for a variety of other reasons that violate the federal anti-discrimination laws, such as an employee’s race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age, or disability).  However, the issue is complicated when a religious employer is involved and the employee in question is a “minister”.

If so, the First Amendment comes into play.

Last year, the Supreme Court formally recognized the “ministerial exception” to a federal anti-discrimination claim.  I discuss that decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, here.

In recognizing a “ministerial exception” that is “grounded in the First Amendment”, the Supreme Court wrote:

The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.

Assuming the ministerial exception is raised on appeal, a key issue will be whether Ms. Dias was a “minister” within the meaning of the rule.

You can read about the judge’s refusal in the Dias case to apply the “ministerial exception” here.

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