RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION CLAIMS AGAINST PARACHURCH ORGANIZATIONS

Reporting herein has been editorially limited to court cases involving parachurch organizations litigating in contexts that might also implicate church owners or sponsors. Some parachurch organizations have secular interests that do not differ from non-religious businesses or charities. Litigation about those types of interests are not typically reported herein. Church litigation has dramatically expanded to the routine in occurrence and so, too, has litigation against parachurch organizations operating religious missions.

In Ayers v Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Slip Op. (ED Cal., 2019), the plaintiff brought suit after she graduated from high school because she was refused the office of “treasurer” in the local FCA chapter at her public high school. She was refused the office, as set forth in an email to her by the local FCA leadership, because the FCA leadership was uncertain whether she could espouse “crystal clear theology when talking with coaches and athletes” because she was Mormon. The stated concern was that the FCA leadership was unsure whether if she knew “the theological differences.” The trial court dismissed all of the federal claims with prejudice and declined supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims and dismissed those without prejudice. The school district and its employees were dismissed on 11th Amendment immunity grounds because the plaintiff only sought monetary damages. The FCA sponsors were dismissed because they were not alleged to be state actors.

The email that set forth the religious reasons why the Plaintiff’s application for office was declined was a poor choice. No reason had to be given and if given, less clear language could have been chosen. Parachurch organizations operating missions in secular circumstances, like public schools, will likely chose to avoid the cost of litigation by compromises that churches would never have to tolerate.

Comically, the reason given in the email, concern over “theological differences,” assumed that other high school students could achieve theological continuity. Differing denominations and traditions do not play well together and have not since the Reformation. If these differences can be “set aside” for the sake of the parachurch organization mission, one has to wonder why they were not in this instance.

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