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Employment Discrimination Blog

Monday, October 29, 2012

Former Church Employee Files Discrimination Lawsuit After Termination for Living in Sin

 

Was it illegal workplace discrimination when a church fired an employee after she refused to take the church’s advice to cease living with her fiancé, to whom she was not yet married?

Jessica Atkinson, of Perry, Georgia, believes it is.  Ms. Atkinson filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against Friendship Baptist Church, a Warner Robins church, on Oct. 3, 2012.  She claims she was fired as the nursery school coordinator after church leaders questioned her live-in relationship with her fiancé.  According to the legal complaint, Ms. Atkinson was questioned in a meeting about why she was not married, as well as about her sexual relationship with her fiancé.

Ms. Atkinson said she told church officials she believed she was being discriminated against because of her religion, even though she is a member of the Baptist Church.  She also stated that she believes she was singled out by the church because she is female.

In previous, similar lawsuits, churches have claimed the “ministerial exception.”  The ministerial exception is an exception to federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination that states that ministers of a church may be required to adhere to the tenets of the church.

Ms. Atkinson’s lawyer pointed out that she was not a pastor, but a nursery school teacher.  The attorney also stated that membership in the church was not a requirement of Ms. Atkinson’s job, and she was not ordained as a pastor of the church in order to hold the position, which she worked in since 2007 until she was terminated.  Ms. Atkinson’s lawsuit argues that, given these facts, the ministerial exception should not apply.

A recent example of a lawsuit in which the ministerial exception was successfully applied is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on January 11, 2012.  In that case, a former church teacher alleged disability discrimination when she was terminated after notifying the school she had been diagnosed with narcolepsy.  The school hired another teacher and suggested the teacher resign due to her medical condition.  The Supreme Court applied the ministerial exception, even though the plaintiff spent the majority of her time teaching secular rather than religious subjects.  The Supreme Court’s majority opinion pointed out that the former teacher had received the title "Minister of Religion, Commissioned" and instructed students in prayer.  The Supreme Court ruled that, given those facts, the ministerial exception should apply in that case.  Thus, the teacher’s termination was upheld.

 


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