About four years ago, a Fresno-area employment attorney wrote a blog post about a workplace discrimination case in which he gave employers the free advice of “don’t be a jerk.” OK, he didn’t use the work “jerk,” but you can still absorb the author’s main idea. Employers being jerks can do themselves quite a bit of damage. They may cause good employees to leave, good candidates to stay away and, sometimes, they may run afoul of discrimination law, particularly when it comes to creating hostile work environments. When you’ve faced that kind of harm on the job, it is important to reach out to an experienced Oakland employment attorney promptly.
Some employees may face bigger hurdles than others. For example, if you work for an employer that’s a church or church-related entity (such as, for example, a Catholic school,) then you may find that the discrimination you suffered at work may not be something upon which you can sue. That’s because of something called the “ministerial exception.” In fact, a U.S. Supreme Court case that recently ruled against two Catholic school teachers (one fired due to age and one fired due to disability,) made it clear just how broad the ministerial exception is.
Even when the hurdles are high, such as working for a religious employer, it is important to seek out capable legal advice before you decide to abandon your case. Sometimes, the totality of the facts in your case may still provide you with some legal avenue for compensation. For example, a religious employer may be able to demote or fire you because of your disability, age or sex, under the protection of the ministerial exception but, as one recent case illustrates, may be liable if it so humiliated, harassed and belittled you as to create a hostile work environment.
S.D. was the church organist and music director at a Catholic parish in Calumet City, Ill. Two years after the church hired S.D., it fired him. That happened shortly after he married his gay partner of more than a decade. Additionally, during his entire tenure with the church, he suffered with weight issues brought on by metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
If those were the only facts, the music director likely would not have had a case for federal disability or sexual orientation discrimination. However, those weren’t the only relevant facts. In S.D.’s case, the church had known he was gay the whole time. During most of S.D.’s employment with the church, the church’s pastor “repeatedly and often subjected him to comments and epithets showing hostility to his sexual orientation, and increased the frequency and hostility after learning” about the music director’s impending marriage. Additionally, the pastor allegedly “repeatedly harassed and humiliated” the music director about his weight and his many medical issues.
Federal law often prevents courts from punishing churches for many of the personnel decisions they make, such as hiring, firing, demoting and so forth. To do otherwise would violate the church’s right of free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. Religious entities are free, under the First Amendment, to decide hiring and firing issues consistent with their spiritual requirements and codes.
Churches are free to choose their ministers, not to abuse them
As the federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago pointed out, what religious employers are not entitled to do, however, is create a hostile work environment and then hide behind the ministerial exception. A religious employer may alter ministerial employees’ duties, reduce their pay, demote them or fire them without interference from the courts. What the exception does not do, however, is protect religious employers when they subject ministerial employees to belittlement, humiliation, and “sometimes horrific abuse.”
Although S.D.’s case took place in Illinois, federal courts here in California agree with that approach. Some years ago, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in favor of a California man who was studying to be a Jesuit priest but left due to rampant sexual harassment. In that case, the 9th Circuit court said that a church is allowed to choose its ministers “using whatever criteria it deems relevant.” However, allowing sexual harassment or allowing a hostile work environment is not a “method of choosing” ministers, and so is not protected by the exception, which means the employee can proceed in court.
If you’ve been the victim of harassment, humiliation and/or abuse at work, you may have a winning hostile work environment case under federal or California law. To find more about your options, contact to The Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Attorney Fuerch is a knowledgeable Oakland employment attorney whose extensive experience can provide you with the powerful legal representation you need. To learn more, contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.