Chief Magistrate Judge Paul Grimm issued an opinion recently that dives into the murky waters of anti-discrimination laws and religious institutions. Under current law, religious institutions have some immunity from discrimination on the grounds of religious beliefs. They can insist upon employing “individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.” That is, a synagogue can refuse to hire a Baptist as its administrative assistant; it can fire an employee for a religious observance that conflicts with a work schedule.
But Judge Grimm drew the line at religious harassment. Lori Kennedy, a member of the Church of the Brethren, complained of being harassed and eventually terminated because she adhered to a certain dress code dictated by her religion. Having decided to hire a non-Catholic at a Catholic hospital, the institution was not permitted to harass an employee whose modest dress and head covering were called inappropriate in a Catholic institution. The court decided that the harassment is not permitted under Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination statute.
An interesting twist involves the plaintiff’s claims for illegal termination. Her claim of religious harassment will go to trial. She also complained that she was fired in retaliation for complaining about the harassment, and in violation of her right to be free of religious discrimination. The latter claim fails. The Catholic church is free to fire her for her religious beliefs. But the retaliation claim survives, since it arises out of the harassment. Her damages are the same for either claim.