Another Defense of Title VII Religious Hiring Rights

ECFA and a number of fellow ministry organizations are once again defending religious hiring rights in court. Rallying behind yet another religious school sued for upholding its beliefs on marriage and sexuality, our coalition is working to ensure a federal appeals court recognizes that a straightforward reading of civil rights statutes — never mind the U.S. Constitution — ensures the right of ministries to have employees who are aligned with them on matters of faith.

This most recent case centers on the lawsuit of Shelly Fitzgerald, previously a top guidance counselor for

Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. She was released by the Catholic school after she affirmed her commitment to a same-sex marriage — a clear violation of her employment contract and the school’s faith teachings. Fitzgerald sued the school and its local archdiocese for sex discrimination, but she lost last autumn in a federal district court based on the “ministerial exception” — a protection based in the First Amendment preventing government interference when faith groups choose their leaders and teachers. 

Luke Goodrich of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is defending the school, called this “a common-sense ruling,” and Becket noted that it is consistent with other recent rulings, including two last year involving similar school disputes in the same Indiana archdiocese.

“The Supreme Court has long recognized that religious organizations have a constitutional right to hire individuals who believe in their faith’s ideals and are committed to their religious mission,” said Goodrich.

Nevertheless, Fitzgerald is appealing to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. And while this should be an open-and-shut case given other recent rulings referenced by Becket, Fitzgerald’s appeal allows an opportunity for ECFA and other concerned ministries to argue for a correction in the lower court’s reasoning. While it ultimately made a decision in favor of the school, it dismissed an attempt to halt the lawsuit based on a plain reading of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The district court rejected the idea that the law’s religious exemption immediately curtailed any further consideration of Fitzgerald’s sex discrimination claim.

“Instead, according to the district court’s logic, religious organizations must—under Title VII—employ individuals who reject, violate, or disparage their beliefs on these topics,” notes our brief recently filed with the appeals court.

Our amicus brief goes on to explain that while Title VII doesn’t create a blanket exemption in all matters for religious organizations, a clear reading of its text does precisely what Congress intended. It preserves the ability of faith-based organizations to employ individuals rightly aligned with the religious identity that makes them who they are.

“Religious organizations like amici intertwine their carrying out of activities in service to God and society with their cultivating of an association of employees committed to their beliefs and mission,” we wrote. “Indeed, the latter often energizes the former.”

The Seventh Circuit correcting the district court’s understanding of the Title VII religious exemption would be very important for the defense of fundamental associational and religious liberties we hold dear. Indeed, as Becket’s brief before the appeals court recognizes, “Applying the exemption’s plain terms here would obviate the need to delve into constitutionally sensitive questions of ministerial status every time an employee sues over a religious employer’s application of its religious requirements.”

ECFA weighed in for the Title VII religious exemption in the similar case of Charlotte Catholic last year.

We will continue to monitor developments in this case and others critical to our members’ religious liberty.

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.