Religious-affiliated businesses or employers have certain rights when it comes to how they operate their businesses because of their First Amendment rights under the Free Exercise Clause. As a result, some employees are under the impression that if they are terminated by a religiousbased employer they have no recourse. However, religious beliefs do not excuse employers from recognizing and complying with the federal protections against discrimination in the workplace.
Catholic School Teacher Fired for Being Unmarried and Pregnant
A Pre-K instructor at a Catholic school in North Jersey informed the school’s principal that she was pregnant. The teacher, who is not Catholic, was engaged but had not gotten married. Two weeks later, she was fired. The teacher filed a sex discrimination lawsuit, but her case was dismissed by the trial court. She appealed, however, and the appellate court determined that she had the right to let a jury decide whether her termination was based on her gender.
Free Exercise Clause protections are not unlimited
Employers are entitled to exercise their own religious beliefs, even within their businesses, but only to a certain degree. Religious freedom in the employment context can apply to pastors, for example, but not necessarily to law employees. In those situations, employers are still required to comply with the federal anti-discrimination laws.
To put it another way, a religious employer may be able to terminate an employee who violates a religious principle such as refraining from premarital sex, but that policy must be applied equally to everyone. So, if a Catholic school has a rule that teachers must refrain from premarital sex, it must be applied to all employees including the males. The difficulty comes in having any proof that a male employee is violating this rule. Most likely, women will be disproportionately affected by this rule if they become pregnant.
Proving sex discrimination in the religious context
If you can establish that your employer has only terminated women for violating the premarital sex rule, then you may have a claim for sex (gender) discrimination. If, as in the case of the Catholic school teacher, you can prove that your employer targeted you for termination because of your pregnancy, that will likely be enough to take your case to the jury.
Understanding the Bona Fide Occupational Qualification defense
In employment discrimination law there is a defense that employers may raise known as the BFOQ defense, which stands for Bona Fide Occupational Qualification. Basically, employers may claim that a protected characteristic may be the basis for discrimination when that characteristic “is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.” In some cases, qualifications based on religious beliefs may be considered bona fide occupational qualifications. But speak to a Birmingham employment law attorney to discuss your situation and determine your potential claims.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Michel | King . You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!