Advancing Religious Liberty
6/2/10 at 12:25 PM 0 Comments

Federal Court Erodes Religious Freedom

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Author: ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot 
Recently a federal court in Maryland undermined the independence of religious organizations when it allowed a nurse's religious harassment claim against a Catholic institution to go forward.  It was the first such decision of its kind. Villa St. Catherine's is a Catholic nursing center that the Court recognized is exempt from religious discrimination provisions of Title VII - the federal law that prohibits employment discrimination.  Congress wisely included this exemption so that religious organizations can maintain their religious character.  This makes constitutional and practical sense. A Jewish ministry to the poor should not have to hire a Muslim, and vice versa.  And when government entangles itself in the hiring and firing decisions of religious organizations, it violates the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom.  A good analysis of this aspect of Church Autonomy can be read here.

Significantly, the Maryland court agreed that St. Catherine's should be able to maintain a workforce with beliefs compatible with Catholicism. The nurse in this case was not Catholic, but a member of the Church of the Brethren.  She alleged she was fired because of her religious beliefs, and the Court rejected that claim because religious organizations like Villa St. Catherine's are allowed to fire people because they don't share the organization's religious beliefs.

But Nurse Kennedy also brought a claim for religious harassment and this is where the Court's analysis and common sense part ways. Prior to being fired, Nurse Kennedy was told that her Church of the Brethren manner of dress - long skirts and a head covering - was not compatible with a Catholic institution and made the residents and family members uncomfortable.  When she complained about this reasonable instruction, she was fired, so she brought a retaliation claim (which the Court also allowed to go forward).

The upshot of it is, St. Catherine's could have simply fired Nurse Kennedy because she was not Catholic. Instead of taking this drastic measure, she was advised to change her dress to comport with the beliefs of the institution and the people it serves.  Amazingly that reasonable effort to save the nurse's job proved to be St. Catherine's downfall.  Under this rationale, a Jewish nursing center could not require its employees to refrain from dressing in traditional Islamic garb - even though it would be contrary to Jewish teaching and have a disturbing effect on the individuals being served.

This is non-sensical and makes an end run around Congress' well thought out efforts to protect religious organizations from liability when they ensure their employees' religious beliefs comply with their own.  More significantly, it violates the religious freedom of religious organizations by requiring them to tolerate behavior that conflicts with their teaching and traditions.  Hopefully, St. Catherine's will appeal this dangerous precedent and the Fourth Circuit will nip this new attack on religious freedom in the bud.

This post originally appeared here.

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