CHURCH MORALITY LAWSUITS

Church employees that run afoul of basic moral tenets of church employers are often terminated.  Whether this is good church policy or not depends on the situation and depends on the alternatives available.  Unfortunately, sometimes it is a financial question because some members may not want their offerings used to deal with the consequences of sin in others who fail to hide the sin.

In Kelley v Decatur Baptist Church, Memorandum and Order (ND Ala., NE Div. 2018), the federal district court did not dismiss the Plaintiff’s case because the Plaintiff alleged she was terminated because she was pregnant in violation of Title VII.  She also alleged she was a “maintenance” and child daycare employee.  The church alleged the pregnancy was out of wed lock and that the Plaintiff “sowed discord” among the daycare employees, neither reason being governed by Title VII.  The church also asserted the first reason for termination was driven by beliefs protected by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception Doctrine because the Plaintiff was a “minister.”  The case was not dismissed because the Court had to assume as true the allegations in the Complaint at this stage of the proceedings and that at best there was a factual dispute that could not be resolved at this stage.  The case will proceed into discovery and possibly other proceedings.

There might not have been a factual dispute if as a new employee the Plaintiff had acknowledged by signing a document describing her position and its duties as ministerial or if there had been an employee handbook similarly acknowledged that contained similar language.  Such an employee handbook might have contained a morals clause that expressly listed pregnancy out of wed lock, for the father and the mother, as disqualifying criteria for working with the children entrusted to the church.  The troubling aspects of the situation may have been reduced if the church had engaged and paid a license professional counselor to counsel the Plaintiff to reduce or end the “discord” among child care workers, especially if that effort failed, and to help her make the adjustment to motherhood.  The Scarlet “S” approach, if the church took that approach as the Court’s opinion seems to suggest, did not seem to work so well.

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