In response to my March 25 post (“The right to be wrong”) about the Klouda vs. Southwestern Seminary case, John Land (jpland) raised this good question:
“If it is allowable to discriminate within religious groups based upon one’s sex, should it also be allowable to do so based on one’s race? What about those who are handicapped? I’m trying to understand where the law stops (or should stop) and the rights of the church start.”
To get a deserving response, I asked Holly Hollman (in photo), general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., for help. Here’s her answer:
“In this area of the law, as in others, the answer to such broad questions is ‘it depends.’ Often, the same set of facts will yield a different result in different jurisdictions. To get a legal opinion on any precise question, one should engage a lawyer in the applicable jurisdiction and provide him or her with all pertinent facts. For educational purposes, however, the following general information may be helpful.
Under a variety of federal civil rights laws, it is unlawful for employers with a certain number of employees to discriminate in employment with regard to certain ‘protected categories,’ such as race, gender, religion, and disability. Recognizing that religious organizations are distinctly protected under the First Amendment and other laws, many non-discrimination laws provide certain exemptions for religious entities. For example, schools that are either explicitly religious or owned by a religious institution are allowed to discriminate based on religion in their hiring processes. Likewise, houses of worship are exempt from the ban on religious discrimination, even in positions that lack explicitly religious duties. This exemption, however, does not give such entities the right to discriminate based upon other protected categories, such as race and national origin. A broader exemption has been recognized by many courts to prevent interference in ecclesiastical matters. This ‘ministerial exemption’ is based in First Amendment concerns and respect for church autonomy. It goes beyond the exemption from the prohibition on religious discrimination found in federal civil rights laws, but is typically limited to a church’s ministerial positions. If an entity can prove that it is a church’ and that the person it is discriminating against is a ‘minister,’ then the courts will not rule on the case because ‘civil courts are not an appropriate forum for review of internal ecclesiastical decisions.’ Klouda v. Southwestern Theological Seminary, No. 4:07-CV-161-A (N.D. Tex. 2008). This is the exemption at issue in the Klouda case, and the court ultimately held that the seminary was a ‘church’ and Klouda was a ‘minister,’ as those terms are understood in the context of that jurisdiction’s ministerial exemption.”