While Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on religious affiliation or beliefs, there are some exceptions or exemptions to Title VII's religion provisions for certain employers. Specifically defined "religious organizations" and "religious educational institutions" are exempt from certain religious discrimination provisions. Additionally, a "ministerial exception" bars Title VII claims by employees who work in clergy roles.
Understanding the Religious Organization Exemption
Religious organizations are allowed to act upon employment preferences to employees with the same religious beliefs, as long as the institution is of a religious nature and purpose. There are certain factors that are considered to determine whether the entity is entitled to the exemption, such as the stated purpose in the articles of incorporation and the nature of the day-to-day operations. Affiliation with, or support from, a church or other religious organization is another important factor; however, the exemption is not limited to religious activities per se, but extends to employment decisions, as well.
The Limitations of the Religious Exemption
Again, it is important to understand that this exemption under Title VII only allows an employer to show a preference when it involves individuals with the same religion.
"[It] does not allow any religious organization to discriminate in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. Thus, a religious organization is not permitted to engage in racially discriminatory hiring, for example, by asserting that a tenet of its religious beliefs is not associating with people of other races."
ADA Claim Allowed to Stand Against Religious Hospital
The case of Ockletree v. Franciscan Health Systems is an example of the limitations of the religious exemption. In that case, an employee filed an ADA claim against his religious hospital employer. The issue was whether the religious exemption applied when the claim involved a discriminatory termination that was non-religious in nature. In other words, could the religious hospital be held liable for discrimination, if the reason for the challenged employment action was not based on religion?
Can an Employer Avoid Liability Simply on the Basis of Religious Status?
The answer is no. In Ockletree, the security guard plaintiff was allegedly terminated after he had a stroke which left him with limited use of his left arm. Because the discrimination complained of was not motivated by religious beliefs, the exemption did not apply to protect the hospital from liability, in this particular case. As Ockletree's discrimination claims were wholly unrelated to the hospital's stated religious purpose, its religious practices or activities, the exemption could not apply.
Discrimination in Termination Decisions May Still Be Exempted
In addition to hiring decisions, the religious exemption applies to the discharge of employees as well. In another case, Larsen v. Kirkham, the district court held that the right to discriminate extended to the right to terminate employees who are church members, but who do not meet the stated standards of church participation, for example. The difference is, in that case the decision was based on a religious reason.
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