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4th Circuit Holds Religious Organizations Exempt from Title VII In “Modest Garb” Case

Published by on October 13, 2011

On September 14, 2011, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of Villa St. Catherine, Inc.’s motion for summary judgment in a religious discrimination and retaliation case involving a former employee’s religious attire.  Althought the “ministerial exemption” based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not implicated in this case, it is worth […]

On September 14, 2011, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of Villa St. Catherine, Inc.’s motion for summary judgment in a religious discrimination and retaliation case involving a former employee’s religious attire.  Althought the “ministerial exemption” based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not implicated in this case, it is worth noting that the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a case involving the ministerial exemption.  More after the break.

St. Catherine’s is a tax-exempt, religious organization that operates a nursing-care facility in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  The plaintiff was employed from 1994 to 2007 as a geriatric nursing assistant.  The plaintiff alleged that she is a member of the Church of the Brethren which requires “modest garb” including long dresses and the covering of her hair.  During the course of her employment, the Assistant Director of Nursing Services informed the plaintiff that that her attire was inappropriate for the Catholic facility and that it made the residents and their family members feel uncomfortable.  The plaintiff rejected this notion and informed her superior that her dress was a function of her religious beliefs, and she would not change it.  Subsequently, the plaintiff’s employment was terminated.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit under Title VII for religious harassment and retaliatory and discriminatory discharge.  St. Catherine’s immediately filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that a “religious organization” is exempt from Title VII’s religious discrimination provisions.  The district court agreed with the plaintiff, and denied the motion.  St. Catherine’s petitioned the Court of Appeals for an interlocutory appeal, which was allowed.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded, siding with St. Catherine.

The Fourth Circuit analyzed the plain language of Title VII.  Although Title VII requires religious organizations to bar discrimination based on race, gender, or national origin, the language clearly provides an exemption “with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion or to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.”  42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1(a).

The district court concluded that the reading of “employment” in the law refers exclusively to hiring and firing decisions, but the Fourth Circuit found this to be an overly narrow reading of the law.  The use of the word “employment” elsewhere in Title VII bolstered the conclusion that Congress used the term “employment” to encompass more than just hiring and firing – that is why Congress chose to include “failure or refusal to hire or to discharge any individual” within Title VII instead of simply utilizing the word “employment.”

In conclusion, the Fourth Circuit determined that the plaintiff’s harassment and retaliation claims both arose under her state of being employed by a religious organization.  They were therefore precluded by the religious organization exemption in the statute.  Finally, the court determined that the outcome of the case conformed with the purpose and intention of Congress to “enable religious organizations to create and maintain communities composed solely of individuals faithful to their doctrinal practices.”

A complete copy of the opinion can be found here.

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