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Religious Discrimination Claim Survives Motion To Dismiss

Published by on November 27, 2007

In an opinion dated November 19, 2007, Andrews v. Virginia Union Univ., No. 3:07-cv-00447-REP (E.D.Va.), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied a motion to dismiss disparate treatment and failure to accommodate religious discrimination claims brought by a Baptist minister against Virginia Union University.  Rev. Gwendolyn Andrews, a Baptist minister and […]

In an opinion dated November 19, 2007, Andrews v. Virginia Union Univ., No. 3:07-cv-00447-REP (E.D.Va.), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied a motion to dismiss disparate treatment and failure to accommodate religious discrimination claims brought by a Baptist minister against Virginia Union University.  Rev. Gwendolyn Andrews, a Baptist minister and former chair of VUU’s Department of Social Work filed a Title VII complaint against VUU after the University did not renew her appointment as Department Chair.  The University’s decision allegedly came shortly after Andrews complained that a new University policy prohibited students and faculty from referring to her as “Reverend.”

 The court first found that Andrews had stated a prima facie case of disparate treatment based on religion.  According to the complaint, Andrews was an ordained Baptist minister and was well-qualified for the position as Department Chair.  She had been granted the Outstanding Faculty of the Year Award for the year immediately preceding her loss of the Department Chair position.  Despite her qualifications she was demoted from that position.  Finally, the court found that her replacement by a Baptist did not defeat the prima facie case because while Andrews used the title “Reverend” her replacement made no such public manifestation of his faith.  Moreover, “[t]he close proximity in time between Andrews’ assertion of her religious beliefs and the loss of the Chair position are sufficient to give rise to a plausible inference of unlawful discrimination.”

As to Andrews’ failure to accommodate claim, the court noted that Andrews alleged that she had a bona fide religious belief that conflicted with an employment requirement and that VUU was aware of this belief.  The court found that the nonrenewal of the Department Chair position and resulting salary loss satisfied the third prong of the prima facie case — that she suffered specific consequences for continuing to assert that she should be called “Reverend” by her students and colleagues.  Significantly, the court concluded that Andrews’ insistence on the use of the term “Reverend” constituted a bona fide religious belief and not a personal preference, at least at the initial pleading stage of the case.

The court also allowed a retaliation claim and a defamation claim against her replacement to proceed to discovery.

Although this case focuses mostly on the religious discrimination claims, the same lesson can be learned here as from retaliation cases:  employers must be aware that discipline or adverse employment action taken shortly after a “complaint” of discrimination may give rise to a retaliation claim.  (Here, it gave rise to both discrimination and retaliation claims.)  Complaining about discrimination does not insulate an employee from legitimate discipline.  Context is critical in these situations, and the Andrews decision is worthy reading for those making employment decisions.

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