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  • Hiring, Firing, and Discrimination Issues in the Church

    Churches can be sued just like any other legal entity. Just because they are non-profit entities does not mean that they can ignore all state and federal employment laws. Employees and those not hired for jobs may be entitled to financial compensation if they were victims of illegal practice. Churches are subject to anti-discrimination laws in their hiring and firing decisions. However, there are wide exceptions that give churches the ability to further their mission with their hiring. Nonetheless, churches should consult with attorneys when necessary and have policies and procedures that govern hiring an appointment.

    Religious Freedom May Conflict With Laws

    There is often tension between discrimination laws and religious freedom. Churches may not want to hire someone who may conflict with their religious values. Then, they want to terminate someone who is found to live a certain way because it does not mesh with the message that the church is trying to get across to congregants. However, there is a fine line between religious values and illegal conduct. When in doubt, churches should ask a lawyer.

    The Supreme Court Allows Some Exceptions for Churches

    Thankfully for churches, the Supreme Court continues to expand the leeway that churches have to apply their religious principles in hiring and firing decisions. In 2012, the Court announced a “minister’s exception” to anti-discrimination law. While the doctrine refers to a minister, its application is not necessarily limited to clergy. Numerous types of church employees can fall under the doctrine. The Supreme Court continuously expands the application of this doctrine.

    There were originally four factors that the Court considered when applying the minister exception:

    • Formal job title and whether the employer held the employee out as a minister.
    • Whether the employee’s title reflected ministerial substance and training.
    • Whether the employee held herself out as a minister.
    • Whether the employee’s job duties included “important religious functions” performed on behalf of the religious organization.

    Although the court did not initially limit the application of the doctrine to ministers, the most common application was to them.

    The Supreme Court Expands the Ministers Exception

    In 2020, the Supreme Court issued another decision that broadened the doctrine. Sunday school teachers filed a lawsuit against a church when they were fired from their jobs. The teachers claimed that anti-discrimination laws protected them, while the churches claimed that the minister exception applied. The Court sided with the churches. The court found that the teachers were prominent in passing religious values on to the children. Thus, they had responsibilities that could be considered ministerial, even if they were not ministers.

    Although the exceptions in the law are broad, churches should not necessarily rely on the fact that their behavior would automatically be protected. They still need to be careful about how they treat employees and the conduct to which they are subjected. Like any exception, there would be outer limits on what acceptable conduct may be about employees.

    Churches May Still Be Sued for Their Conduct

    Churches can still be sued based on their conduct and employing people. There is no blanket protection for a religious organization. A church should have policies and procedures that govern hiring and employment. They should consult an experienced attorney with specific employment law questions to protect them from lawsuits. For example, a church can still be sued for sexual harassment or retaliation when an employee is treated illegally.

    Contact Our Virginia Beach Church Lawyers at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC for Help When Facing Lawsuits

    For help with employment issues, contact our Virginia Beach church lawyers at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC. You do not want to risk your church’s financial well-being and continued existence on possible legal issues. Call us at 757-LAW-0000 or contact us online to schedule a consultation. Located in Virginia Beach, we serve clients in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg, and Eastern Shore, Virginia.