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Federal appeals court holds that company with religious mission is immune from discrimination claims of former employee

This week, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a former employee of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA (“IVCF”) could not sue it for sex discrimination because of the religious natures of IVCF’s business and her job.  The former employee, Alyce Conlon, alleged that IVCF fired her because it did not think she did enough to reconcile her marriage with her husband.  Conlon argued that this was sex discrimination because IVCF treated her differently than male employees who divorced their wives.

IVCF is a “Christian organization, whose purpose is to advance the understanding and practice of Christianity in colleges and universities.”  Conlon worked as a “spiritual director” for IVCF.  Part of Conlon’s job involved assisting people to cultivate an “intimacy with God and growth in Christ-like character through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that there is a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws.  This ministerial exception immunizes religious organizations from lawsuits that challenge the organizations’ decisions on who to employ as “ministers.”  This ministerial exception is based on the First Amendment, which restricts government interference with religious institutions.  Given the religious nature of IVCF’s business and Conlon’s job, the Sixth Circuit held that the ministerial exception applied.  In reaching this decision, the Sixth Circuit analyzed various factors, including Conlon’s job title and her job duties.  The court also noted that IVCF qualified for the ministerial exception even though it was a multidenominational organization, instead of a church or an organization affiliated with only one Christian denomination.

Conlon argued that, even if the ministerial exception applied in this case, IVCF had decided to waive its immunity from her sex discrimination claim.  The Sixth Circuit rejected this argument.  It held that under no circumstances could an employer waive its immunity from lawsuits that it enjoys under the ministerial exception.

The court’s ruling on waiver is significant because other constitutional rights, such as a state’s sovereign immunity from certain types of lawsuits, can be waived.  One of the three judges on the case would not have made such a sweeping ruling on this issue of waiver.  In a separate concurring opinion, this judge noted that, for purposes of this case, the court did not need to rule that a religious organization entitled to the ministerial exception could not enter into a court-enforceable contract with a minister that prohibited the organization from discriminating against the minister.  Since the case did not require such a ruling, this judge did not think that the court should have made the ruling.