A new case by the state’s highest court addressed a raging issue – do religious institutions have free rein to discriminate against employees, or must there be a religious component to the discrimination?
The new case involved a claim by Mary Linklater that the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Montgomery County. On the merits, the Court of Appeals agreed that “the evidence was sufficient to establish that Respondent (1) was the victim of sexual harassment, (2) complained about the harassment, and (3) was the victim of additional harassment and retaliation as a result of her complaints.” The employee won a substantial verdict at trial.
The more difficult constitutional issues arise because the employee was employed as a music director by a church. Music directors are involved in a church’s ministry, and courts try to stay out of church governance issues because of the First Amendment. On the other hand, as an employer subject to the laws of the state and country, a church employer is bound by laws that do not encroach on religious issues, such as sex discrimination. To relieve churches of all employment laws would tilt the church/state barrier too far in favor of churches, favoring religion, which also violates the First Amendment.
It gets murkier with sexual harassment. While sexual harassment is sex discrimination, and therefore not off limits under a church and state separation analysis, part of Ms. Linklater’s claims stated that her harassing boss engaged in quid pro quoharassment. That is, Ms. Linklater claimed that she was promised a job benefit only if she gave in to her boss’s requests for sexual favors. To judge whether she makes out all parts of her claim, though, the court has to look at whether her job performance was good enough to get the promotion without the sexual harassment. This intrudes on a church’s religious freedom. Similarly, the Court of Appeas decided that the retaliation firing claim intruded too closely on a religious institution’s ability to make its own employment decisions. The hostile work environment claim, however, survives.
The Court did not unanimously agree on this issue. The dissent would limit the religious exemption to a situation where a termination decision had a “spiritual rationale.” The hurch had not offered a reason for the firing that had anything to do with its doctrine.
As a result of this decision, the case will be returned to the trial court. The verdict is erased on state law counts, but now Ms. Linklater may pursue her gender discrimination and sexual harassment hostile environment claims.