Tag: Morals Clauses


During the lifetime of this writer and many readers, even churches have been subject to cosmic and cataclysmic changes.  Women universally wore hats and gloves to every and all worship services and men wore coats and ties.  Divorced people were pariahs.  Now, in very few churches is there any dress code, formal or informal, and most want people to “come as you are.”  Divorced people now have the same representation in church populations as in the community.  Divorced people are no longer excluded from all church leadership positions.  Women were rarely seen in church leadership or ministry positions but the opposite is now true.  Even in denominations that limit the roles of women, those limitations are shrinking.  Likewise, the issue of gay rights is now moving churches through the same sort of upheavals.  Indeed, denominations are literally splitting over the issue.  The report that follows and the commentary at the end reflect perceptions of the legal issues only and is not a commentary on moral issues or religious doctrine.

In Doe v Catholic Relief Services, Memorandum (D. Maryland, 2022), the Plaintiff, a data analyst employed by the parachurch organization, sought health benefits for his same sex spouse which the employer ultimately refused to provide.  The Defendant was characterized by the federal trial court as a “social services nonprofit” employing 7,000.  The court noted it was “constituted” by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  The Defendant binds its employees to a Code of Conduct and Ethics “informed by the teachings of the church.”  The “human resource materials” disclose that benefits offered to employees are administered “consistent with Catholic values.”  The Plaintiff was given a promotion and additional salary thought to be sufficient to cover the cost of private purchase of health benefits for Plaintiff’s spouse.  The Defendant sought to dismiss the case invoking the Church Autonomy Doctrine.  The federal trial court rejected the argument by holding the court could decide the issue under neutral principles of law and need not inquire into church doctrine regarding employment of a data analyst.  The federal trial court denied that the Title VII prohibition of applicability of the statute to religious organizations applied to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but only to employment of “co-religionists.”  The trial court denied the Religious Freedom of Restoration Act applied to anything other than when government is an actor, so it did not apply to the case.  The federal trial court denied that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment did not apply to federal employment discrimination statutes because prohibition of sex discrimination was neutral and only incidentally burdens religious exercise.  The federal trial court held the Defendant violated the federal Equal Pay Act because the same sex spouse was treated differently than non-same sex spouses.  The federal trial court decided to leave to a future jury the question of damages but precluded punitive damages because of the “uncertainty of the scope of the religious exemption” and the Defendant’s attempt albeit unsuccessful attempt to arrive at a bargained resolution.

The parachurch organization’s abandonment of its own Code of Conduct and Ethics “informed by the teachings of the church” led it to the slippery slope where it could not bargain its way out of the dispute and it had to litigate it in a federal court that thought the statutory exemption, much less the First Amendment, applied only to employment of “co-religionists,” a term the court opinion reported above used three times.  As the parachurch organization ultimately learned, no good deed goes unpunished.  Terminate the employee or do not based on the Code.  If not, do not fiddle with benefits, parking spaces, promotions or anything else in order to try to give lip service to an abandoned policy, religious or otherwise.


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.