Sunday, June 11, 2006

employment - Title VII - religious institution

Curay-Cramer v. The Ursuline Academy

Former teacher at private Catholic school failed to state cause of action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 USC 2000e et seq. or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 USC 2000e(k). The teacher was fired after she signed her name to a pro-choice advertisement in a local newspaper.

The court held that she did not engage in protected activity or "opposition conduct" in signing the advertisement, which made no reference to any alleged illegal employment practice by the school, either specifically or through context. Her protest or expression was only a public endorsement of Roe v. Wade. It had no "perceptible connection to the employer's alleged illegal employment practice."

The court also held that plaintiff's claim that she was disciplined differently than male employees was foreclosed by the religion clauses of the US Constitution, citing NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago,440 US 490 (1979), since resolution of her claim would require an analysis of church doctrine and church orthodoxy. In addition, plaintiff had not alleged any similar conduct by a male employee. The court thus distinguished the case from one in which a plaintiff avers that "truly comparable employees were treated differently following substantially similar conduct."

However, the court said it did "not hold that a plaintiff seeking to establish pretext by a religious employer need establish that the comparators engaged in precisely the same conduct as that said to support the adverse employment action against the plaintiff. Whether the proffered comparable conduct is sufficiently similar to avoid raising substantial constitutional questions must be judged on a case-by-case basis."

The court also noted that the legislative history of Title VII shows that Congress intended to exclude religious employers from the provisions prohibiting religious discrimination.

The court cautioned religious employers "against over-reading the impact of our holding. It is by no means the case that all claims of gender discrimination against religious employers are impermissible.....If a religious employer does not offer a religious justification for an adverse employment action against a non-ministerial employee, it is unlikely that serious constitutional questions will be raised by applying Title VII."