Federal and state anti-discrimination statutes outlawed termination based on race, disability, gender and other protected class circumstances. Denominations and churches were exempted in these statutes, generally, from compliance. Further, the First Amendment doctrines, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and Church Autonomy Doctrine, set boundaries on judicial inquiry that have also been applied in employment disputes. The “at will” doctrine prevalent in most states makes it possible for the employer to terminate or the employee to terminate without notice or cause, and without repercussion. Employment contracts need not eviscerate the “at will” doctrine. Such contracts, along with employee handbooks and other documents are important employment dispute documents.
In Butler v St Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Academy, Memorandum & Order (ED NY 2022), the federal trial granted summary judgment to the church on federal employment law claims. The Plaintiff was hired immediately before the start of the school year to teach art literature and social studies at a church school. The Plaintiff represented he attended Catholic schools and had a desire to integrate modern teaching methods with the “Catholic faith.” Plaintiff attended new teacher orientation and after a day of it sent an email to the Principal expressing concern over whether he was likely to be “accepted” because of his sexual orientation and because he expected someday to enter a same sex marriage. The Plaintiff was terminated before the commencement of classes. The job listing required applicants “committed to the mission of Catholic education.” The employment contract required compliance with a “morality clause” and the employee handbook explicitly warned of termination for violation of the morals clause. Both clauses explicitly were based on Catholic doctrine. The federal trial court held the Ministerial Exception applied because the employment contract and handbook required integration of religious teaching and practice into classroom presentations, relying on Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, 565 US 171, 188 (2012) and Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v Morrissey-Berru, 140 SCt 2049, 2055 (2020). The federal trial court held that even if the Ministerial Exception was inapplicable, the Church Autonomy Doctrine foreclosed inquiry into whether the reason given for termination, violation of the morals clauses, was pre-textual because it would require inquiry into the plausibility of the “asserted religious justifications.” While denominations and churches may someday revisit their doctrines regarding some of the issues reported above, and some may have already, the First Amendment prohibits imposition of involuntary reviews by courts and legislatures. To further shield churches, parachurch organizations and church schools, employment contracts, employee handbooks, and job listings should explicitly describe the religious nature of the employment, the religious duties expected of the employee, and imposition of morals clauses generally consistent with church doctrine. Leave no doubt. Follow through.