The federal anti-discrimination law known as Title VII applies to nearly all employers of more than 15 people. Among other protected categories is the religion of an employee. While the number of charges of discrimination for religious harassment or discrimination is far less than the race and sex based claims, the volume is still significant.
A number of cases over the years have addressed the breadth of Title VII’s exemption for religious organizations as employers. The Fourth Circuit last week made plain that the law exempted religious organizations from all hiring and other employment decisions, including harassment and retaliation. The exemption means “that the government interest in eliminating religious discrimination by religious organizations is outweighed by the rights of those organizations to be free from government intervention.”
In the case that brought this to the Fourth Circuit, an employee of a Catholic nursing care facility refused her employer’s request not to dress in a certain way, reflective of her religious organization’s emphasis on modest dress. When she refused, she was fired. She admitted that the law permitted her to be fired, but contended that the request not to wear her head covering and Thus, although the Catholic facility hired the employee, knowing she was not Catholic, it was free to fire her because of her religious beliefs or impose terms of employment that might conflict with her beliefs.
Significantly, the dissent to the opinion disagreed with the procedural manner in which the case reached the court, but did not believe that the nursing facility’s insistence that the employee alter her manner of dress came anywhere close to actionable harassment.