Earlier this year the Supreme Court affirmed that religious organizations are not bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act in the hiring, treatment, and firing of anyone in a ministerial role. Many in the employment law world saw that case as giving broad discretion to churches and other religious organizations about how they treat their employees and the organization's lawful ability to discriminate.
The ruling is being tested in a new case brought by a former Catholic School employee who says she was fired after she told her employer that she had become pregnancy via artificial insemination. The school does not deny that they fired her for that reason, but argues that it was lawful because of the ministerial exception to discrimination laws, and that the woman's conduct violated a morals clause in her contract. The judge who heard the case allowed it to proceed despite the Supreme Court ruling, saying that the two cases didn't have enough in common and that the woman who claimed she suffered from pregnancy discrimination was not in a ministerial position.
This case is a wrongful termination action, which can be brought by an employee who was fired for an illegal reason. In this instance, pregnancy discrimination is the illegal reason for the firing. Employers are also prohibited from denying work opportunities, promotions, or pay because an employee has become pregnant. Pregnancy discrimination is a common form of sex discrimination and is shockingly common in at-will employment states, where employers do not need to provide a reason for firing someone. However, even at-will employees have a right not to be discriminated against for any reason.
The present case will certainly challenge the boundaries of the earlier Supreme Court case, and employment law experts will be watching the proceedings to find out just how far religious organizations can go in ignoring discrimination laws.
Source: Business Insurance, "Ministerial exception no shield in Ohio pregnancy bias case: Judge," Judy Greenwald, April 5, 2012.