A federal court has ruled that a woman cannot sue a Christian campus organization that fired her for having a troubled marriage, even though the group reportedly didn’t let go two male staffers when they divorced their wives.
According to MLive, Alyce Conlon worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship — an evangelical Christian organization — in various capacities since 1986, eventually landing a job as a spiritual director in Grand Rapids, Michigan from 2004 to 2011. But when she informed her superiors that her marriage had fallen into disarray, Conlon says InterVarsity — which purports to uphold the sanctity of marriage, according to MLive — put her on paid leave to afford her an opportunity to salvage her relationship.
When Conlon tried to come back to work later that year, however, her superiors refused, saying she “did not make efforts to reconcile her marriage” and putting her on unpaid leave. Finally, in December 2011, Conlon received a letter in which leaders lamented that her “reconciliation” had “proven unsuccessful,” and terminated her position. Her husband filed for divorce in January of the next year.
Conlon challenged the firing in court, arguing that two other men employed by the group were not dismissed when they divorced, and noting that the organization’s own website states that they “conduct hiring without regard to … marital status.” It’s also unclear what theological justification InterVarsity used to back up her firing, given that the group simultaneously claims to value marriage but also has a policy of treating divorces on a case-by-case basis.
Nevertheless, last week the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision of U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist, who ruled last year that the Christian group is protected by the so-called “ministerial exception.” This broad exception comes from the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court court case Hosana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and Schools v. EEOC, where the judges ruled that religious entities retain broad control over who they hire and fire as long as they are classified as “minister.” In the past, the the Supreme Court had mostly restricted the exception to ordained clergy. But the 2012 case broadened the classification by not specifically defining what constitutes ministry, allowing religious groups to help define it on their own and effectively granting them exemptions from nondiscrimination laws in hiring.
Conlon’s case is one of the first challenges to the ministerial exception to be decided since 2012, but several others are currently being processed. Two former employees of Catholic parishes, one in Illinois and one in Missouri, are both suing their employers after they were fired for being publicly gay. In both cases, the ex-employees claim the church community and church officials were aware of their homosexual relationships for years, but only let them go once they were public about it. Meanwhile, several Catholic diocese have threatened to fire people who publicly violate church teachings.