COURT RULES RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS DON’T GET A HALL PASS FOR DISCRIMINATION
Marry the father of your child, stop living with him or lose your job. These were the options given to Coty Richardson, the former instructor of exercise science at Northwest Christian University. In 2011, Richardson became pregnant with her third child; when Richardson informed her superiors, they went into a frenzy. In an email revealed during an investigation, a school official admitted that they were concerned that once Richardson started to show, students would notice she was pregnant but not married and would realize that Richardson had sex outside of marriage, a practice against the strict teachings of the Christian University.
Richardson brought a claim of pregnancy and marital status discrimination against the school. The University filed a summary judgement motion based entirely on its First Amendment rights to religious freedom. The motion focused on a “ministerial exception,” which prevents federal courts from intervening in disputes over members of the clergy and some other employees of religious institutions. This exception has been upheld by the Supreme Court as recently of 2012, however, the Court never stated which employees would be covered.
The Honorable Judge Aiken denied the schools motion. Aiken looked at four factors in determining whether Richardson was a member of the clergy, or another employee as defined by the exception, Judge Aiken determined that she was not. First, Richardson is an assistant professor of exercise science, a secular position. Second, in order to hold Richardson’s position, she did not have to take any special religious training. Third, while Richardson herself is a Christian, there was no evidence that she ever held herself out as a member of the clergy. Further, Judge Aiken admitted that there is some evidence that Richardson did perform some important religious functions in her capacity as a professor, presumably by virtue of her being a teacher at a religious institution. Lastly, outside of being a professor at a religious institution, Richardson never performed any duties normally associated with a member of the clergy, such as leading prayer or escorting her students to church.
Once it was established that Richardson wasn’t an employee or member of the clergy within the meaning of the ministerial exception, Judge Aiken turned to Richardson’s claims of marital discrimination. The Court found that she had indeed been treated differently because of her marital status. This ruling sent a strong message that discrimination will not be tolerated, even at religious institutions. The Court found that the school was less concerned about its employees having sex outside of marriage, but rather the perception that its employees were having sex outside of marriage, leading to de facto animus against pregnant women.
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