Churches are places of worship where people come together to find spiritual guidance, pass along religious traditions to younger generations and find comfort with a higher power. At the same time, churches are still organizations that employ a staff of individuals, from the church’s minister and youth pastors to music directors, and administrative and maintenance staff. Just like other organizations and businesses, churches are prohibited from engaging in discriminatory behavior against employees or prospective employees, and they must comply with federal labor laws. However, there are certain exceptions where a church could avoid liability for a discrimination claim. If you or one of your church staff members is facing a discrimination claim, you are urged to contact an experienced church lawyer at your earliest convenience.
What Federal Employment Laws Do Churches Have to Follow?
All churches that have a staff of employees must establish a clear set of guidelines and policies to ensure that they are in compliance with federal labor laws. The following are examples of federal employment laws that apply to churches and religious organizations:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: This applies to churches with a minimum of 15 employees. Employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees, or potential employees on the basis of their race, color, religion, sex or country or origin. In addition, they may not show bias against an employee based on pregnancy, childbirth or childbirth-related conditions according to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. However, churches and other religious organizations are exempt from Section 702 of Title VII’s ban on religious discrimination.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Act of 1970: All employees are entitled to safe and health working conditions, including church employees. This applies to churches with a minimum of 15 employees.
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): This states that employers may not discriminate against an employee based on a physical or mental disability. It applies to churches with 15 or more employees.
- Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA): This provides employees with unpaid, job-protected leave for medical reasons or specific family needs. This applies to churches with at least 50 employees.
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA): Employers may not discriminate against an employee who is over the age of 40 based on age. This applies to churches that employ 20 people or more.
- Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA): Employers with a certain number of employees must provide non-discriminatory healthcare benefits to its staff. This applies to churches with a minimum or 50 employees who are considered full-time, or who work at least 30 hours per week.
- Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA): This ensures that all employees are compensated fairly based on their employment status as a part-time or full-time employee. This does not apply to churches that do not benefit financially from commercial activity, or whose employees engage in interstate commerce. There are a number of factors that determine whether a church is covered by the FLSA, so you are urged to contact an experienced church lawyer if you are facing discrimination claims.
What Are Some Common Misconceptions About Discrimination at Churches?
Lawsuits involving discrimination claims are becoming increasingly common. While churches and ministries can face many of the same legal risks as other organizations, they often assume that certain employment laws do not apply to religious organizations. Unfortunately, this can have serious legal consequences. The following are examples of common misconceptions that church employers often have:
- “Religious organizations are protected by the First Amendment.” While it is a common assumption that churches are protected by the First Amendment, religious organizations actually have limited protection in situations like terminating a member of the clergy, discussing important issues in board meetings, or requiring employees to practice a certain faith. Church officials should consult with an experienced church lawyer to ensure that they are in compliance with federal and state laws.
- “Employees are like family, so they will not take legal action against the church.” Church officials do not always anticipate problems that may arise during the hiring process, or after an employment relationship has been established. It is important for churches to conduct annual performance reviews, document all disciplinary actions and maintain detailed records. If there is a conflict, church officials are urged to avoid emotional confrontations.
- “If a church only has a few employees, federal labor laws do not apply.” Just because a church does not have a large staff, this does not mean that federal and state employment laws do not apply to them. While certain federal statutes require a minimum of employees in order to apply, state statutes do not. An experienced church lawyer can explain the federal and state laws that affect your religious organization.
- “Churches can notify congregations about why a staff member was terminated.” Confidentiality is extremely important, particularly as it relates to hiring and termination practices. Some states offer protection if a statement is made to a limited number of people, but this protection will likely be overcome if false information is provided, information is provided to individuals who “need to know,” or an employee did not give prior permission to share private information. Churches should follow a strict “need to know” basis when sharing information about an employee. In addition, information should never be shared with individuals outside the church’s staff or congregation.
- “Churches can avoid liability for sexual harassment cases if they were unaware of the harassing behavior.” If an employee is engaging in sexually harassing behavior towards another employee or congregant, the employer is responsible for taking the necessary steps to protect the employee who is being harassed. The employer may be held liable for the sexual harassment, unless he or she took immediate action to stop the harassment and protect the employee who was being harassed. Claiming ignorance of the inappropriate behavior is not an acceptable argument. All church employers must implement a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, communicate these policies and procedures to all employees, and train the staff on how to recognize and report cases of sexual harassment.
- “If there is no written contract, churches can terminate employees for any reason.” While the “at will” doctrine states that an employer can terminate an employee for any reason not prohibited by law if there is no contract, this rule has changed. In many states, employers may be bound by oral assurances, provisions in the employee handbook and employer conduct that would lead the employee to believe that he or she would not be terminated. Church employers should not assume that they are protected by the “at will” doctrine.
- “Churches cannot be sued if there is an employment handbook.” An employee handbook can only limit liability if it has been updated annually, reviewed by a church lawyer and is consistent with actual practice. If these are not followed, the church could be held liable.
- “If an employment lawsuit is filed, the church will be covered by its general insurance.” Employment relationships claims are not generally included in most general liability insurance and personal injury policies. Some companies offer employment practices liability coverage, as well as defense reimbursement coverage. Defense costs can range from $20,000 to over $200,000, depending on the nature of the lawsuit, so church officials should consider this type of insurance.
Virginia Beach Church Lawyers at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC Assist Churches with Discrimination Claims
If an employee has made a discrimination claim against a church official, you are urged to contact the Virginia Beach church lawyers at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC at your earliest convenience. We have a proven track record of reaching successful outcomes in discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination cases. Our skilled legal team will work closely with you to ensure that your legal rights are protected at all ties. We will continue to fight for you until you are completely satisfied. To schedule a free, confidential consultation, call us today at 757-LAW-0000 or contact us online. Our office is located in Virginia Beach, Virginia where we serve clients from Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Hampton, and Eastern Shore.