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-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

McKenna Employment Newsletter – February 2012


The First Amendment Bars Government Interference In A Religious Group's Decision To Fire A Minister

In a case of first impression, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that religious ministers cannot sue for job discrimination. In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., --- S.Ct. ----, 2012 WL 75047 (2012), the Supreme Court agreed with lower courts that there should be a “ministerial exemption” to anti-discrimination laws based on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote: “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important, but so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”

At issue in that case was whether a parochial school teacher and minister who was fired for allegedly having a disability, by the Lutheran congregation that ran her school, could bring a discrimination lawsuit against the church. After determining that the teacher performed significant religious duties as a “minister,” the Court found that the employment relationship between church and minister fell within the protection of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause.

This decision marks the first time the high court has recognized a so-called “ministerial exception,” although every federal appeals court has upheld such an exception. The Court expressed no view on whether the ministerial exception bars suits other than employment discrimination suits challenging a church's decision to discharge a minister. The decision leaves open how far this opinion will reach to employees within religious organizations who are not ministers.


Termination For Threats Of Violence May Be Pretextual

In Coleman v. Donahoe, --- F.3d ----, 2012 WL 32062 (7th Cir., 2012), the United States Postal Service terminated plaintiff Denise Coleman's 32 years of employment as a mail processing clerk. The Postal Service contended that it fired Coleman because she told her psychiatrist she was having thoughts of killing her supervisor, and it believed she posed a danger to her fellow employees. Coleman alleged that her termination was discriminatory (she is African–American and a woman) and retaliatory (she had previously complained, both formally and informally, of discriminatory treatment). In support of her disparate treatment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Coleman presented evidence that two white male employees at the same facility had recently threatened another employee at knife-point, yet received only one-week suspensions from the same manager who fired her.

The district court entered summary judgment in favor of the employer. The district court found that these comparator employees were not similarly situated to Coleman because they had different direct supervisors and held different positions. Coleman, therefore, failed, in the district court's view, to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the “indirect method” of proof. The district court also held that Coleman had not provided any evidence that the Postal Service's stated reason for firing her—that she violated its rule prohibiting workplace violence and threats—was pre-textual.

The Seventh Circuit reversed. The Seventh Circuit held that the two white males were similarly situated. The Seventh Circuit held that in order to find they were similarly situated, the proposed comparators must be similar enough to permit a reasonable juror to infer, in light of all the circumstances, that an impermissible animus motivated the employer's decision. Here, Coleman's two white, male co-workers were disciplined by the same decision-maker, subject to the same code of conduct, and disciplined more leniently for violating the same rule as she. Their case was close enough to Coleman's to provide a “meaningful comparison” and to permit a reasonable jury to infer discrimination.

The Seventh Circuit also determined that there was an issue of fact to be submitted to a jury concerning whether the termination was a pretext. There was an issue of fact regarding whether the threat to the supervisor was a real threat, whether the supervisor took it as a real threat as opposed to using it as an excuse to terminate and evidence that Coleman was being treated differently than other employees who had made similar serious threats. Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit reversed the order granting summary judgment.


“Blazing Saddles” Movie Did Not Constitute Race Discrimination

In Harris v. Warrick County Sheriff’s Dept., No. 10-3706, Seventh Circuit, January 13, 2012, the Court affirmed judgment for the employer in the employee’s Title VII action which alleged that the employer terminated the plaintiff on account of his race. The plaintiff had alleged that his co-workers had engaged in racially charged behavior in watching portions of the “Blazing Saddles” movie at work and giving the plaintiff racially tinged nicknames. However, the employer explained that the plaintiff was terminated from his probationary deputy sheriff position due to the employer’s perception that the plaintiff had a bad habit of disregarding orders and of displaying a casual approach to standard operating procedures. In addition, the plaintiff had failed to offer comparable co-workers with similar job deficiencies to establish pretext. Finally, the Court held that the plaintiff could not base his claim on racially charged behavior where the “Blazing Saddles” movie actually satirized racism and where decision-makers, as opposed to co-workers, had not engaged in giving the plaintiff any racially-tinged nicknames.


This Employment Bulletin is intended to provide information of general interest and does not constitute legal advice. Readers should consult with their counsel before taking any action based on the information in this publication. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013, McKenna Storer. 

Categories Employment Bulletin Employment Law Publications

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