[authors: Josh Meeuwse and Pete Land]
A recent case in the Eleventh Circuit, U.S. Court of Appeals demonstrates the limited reach of Title VII’s exemption from discrimination claims afforded to religiously affiliated institutions who fail to clearly document religious reasons for employment decisions. In Hamilton v. Southland Christian School, --F.3d---, 6:10-cv-871 (11th Cir. 2012), the plaintiff was a teacher at a Christian school who became pregnant while unmarried. The school fired her for engaging in premarital sex, which it believed was a sin. The school’s religious affiliation rendered it exempt from a claim of religious discrimination under Title VII.
Like all other religious institutions, however, the school remained potentially liable for discrimination claims under any of Title VII’s other protected categories, e.g., sex, pregnancy, age, race, and national origin. In Hamilton, the teacher filed a pregnancy discrimination charge alleging that she was terminated for merely being pregnant, without regard to the fact that the pregnancy was out of wedlock. The Eleventh Circuit ruled that, despite some evidence of religious motivation for the termination, the teacher’s claim should be decided by a jury because there was enough circumstantial evidence to raise a reasonable inference of pregnancy discrimination. Specifically, upon learning of the pregnancy (and before the school administrator learned that the situation involved a premarital conception), the administrator allegedly said that the school had “feared something like this would happen.” After learning it was a premarital pregnancy, the administrator was reportedly upset about both the premarital nature of the pregnancy and the need to find a replacement for the teacher. And, although the administrator testified that he would not have fired the teacher if she had apologized for sinning, the teacher testified that she had apologized and had told the administrator that she was remorseful and contrite for her sins. Based on this evidence, the Court held that a jury could reasonably conclude that the school had actually fired Hamilton because she became pregnant, rather than because of the premarital pregnancy.
This case is thus a useful reminder to religious institutions that although they may make employment decisions based on religious beliefs, such religious motivations must be clear. Institutions should clearly communicate and document that their religious belief is the sole reason for the decision and consistently enforce policies or practices relating to such beliefs, in order to effectively defend against discrimination claims based upon other protected categories.