Religious Employers May Not Be As Safe From Discrimination Laws As They Believe
Employees in religious institutions have often been excluded from labor laws which protect other employees. Their employers enjoy this legal protection because of concerns about the free exercise clause. These exemptions extend to labor discrimination laws, such as the Civil Rights Act. A recently decided case, Dias v. Archdiocese of Cincinnati, may be the first wrecking ball against the wall of protection that religious employers have long enjoyed.
In October of 2010, a Catholic school computer teacher named Christa Dias became pregnant. Dias, a lesbian, became pregnant through artificial insemination. When Dias informed her superiors, they terminated her. The schools Dias worked for, Holy Family and St. Lawrence, are both run by the same archdiocese, a Catholic Church leader. The archdiocese stated Dias was terminated because she had a pregnancy outside of marriage and because the use of artificial insemination to become pregnant both violated church doctrine. Dias’s contract with the schools had conditioned her employment on her compliance with church doctrine.
The jury, however, found in favor of Dias. Dias was awarded $71,000 for back pay and compensatory damages, as well as $100,000 in punitive damages. The judge had ruled that Dias’s homosexuality was irrelevant to the case, so the jury neither considered nor held Dias’s sexual orientation against her. Dias relied on the gender discrimination of the church’s doctrine, pointing out that men who gave semen for artificial insemination were not punished in any way.
The main issue is whether the case is covered by discrimination law. Although most contracts are legally valid, contracts cannot be enforced if the contract breaks a law. The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. Firing a woman for becoming pregnant is a violation of the law, regardless of her marital status. The Civil Rights Act, however, also has a built in exception for employees engaged in religious activity. In other words, Dias’s termination would be legal only if she took part in a religious activity as part of her employment, thereby meeting the exception given in the Civil Rights Act.
The exception is only applicable if Dias was involved in a religious activity as part of her employment. As a computer teacher, Dias is not connected to Catholicism, outside of the fact that the schools are Catholic schools. Granted, all teachers hired by the school could be expected to serve as role models to the students. Dias is not required to teach church doctrine to the students though, and being a role model is hardly a religious activity. On the contrary, almost all teachers serve as role models for the students in their charge. Being a role model is part of being a teacher; it is not exclusive to religious teachers, and is thus not a religious activity.
Of course, that is the main theory of the case. A more interesting aspect about the Dias case is what it means for homosexual rights. The judge’s decision to ignore Dias’s sexual orientation is not a surprising move, given that the Civil Rights Act, and similar discrimination laws, are silent when it comes to sexual orientation.
Indeed, the judge’s decision to have Dias’s sexual orientation be a non-issue greatly benefited Dias, since the church had originally planned to use her sexual orientation as proof of her intent to break the contract from the very beginning of her employment. Homosexuality also contradicts church teachings, so Dias was breaching her contract from the start. The judge’s decision swept this under the rug. Even though this case does not directly address gay rights though, lesbian couples who desire children can expect a limited degree of legal protection.