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Employee Fired for Getting Divorce Cannot Raise Claim Against Former Religious Employer

Western Michigan Federal Courts
April 21, 2014

As I noted in my last blog post, the First Amendment does much more than give a person the right to the freedom of speech. For example, the First Amendment contains the Religion Clauses, one of which allows religious organizations to make ecclesiastical decisions without government involvement—what is called the "ministerial exception" to claims of employment discrimination. In this case, the First Amendment provided Intervarsity Christian Fellowship/USA entitlement to the ministerial exception.The plaintiff, Alyce Conlon, was a spiritual director at IVCF. When she informed her superiors that she and her husband were considering divorce, IVCF put her on paid leave of absence so that she could work on her marriage. Despite attending counseling sessions and communicating to IVCF regarding her progress, IVCF eventually terminated her for "failing to reconcile her marriage." Ms. Conlon sued IVCF for employment discrimination, alleging that IVCF treated her differently than similarly situated male employees who divorced their female spouses.

IVCF argued that the ministerial exception barred Ms. Conlon's claims of employment discrimination. The Western District of Michigan agreed, and thus dismissed Ms. Conlon's claims. Ms. Conlon argued that the ministerial exception did not apply because, according to her, it only applies when the employment decision is made for religious reasons. Citing to the Supreme Court, the Western District of Michigan said that the ministerial exception applies regardless why the organization made the decision; the First Amendment's Religion Clauses allow a religious organization to decide who will minister to its faithful regardless of why the decision is made.

As a tactical standpoint, it is important for a religious organization to understand when the ministerial exception may apply. As was the case here, it allowed IVCF to have the plaintiff's claims dismissed solely based upon the allegations in the complaint. Thus, IVCF was able to avoid many expenses in the litigation through a timely and effective defense of the matter.

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