Religious Organizations Allowed to Discriminate against Christians

On May 16, 2002, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that religious institutions cannot be held liable for discriminating against employees on the basis of religion.  The decision came after a lawsuit by an evangelical Christian who was fired from a Catholic medical foundation after he proselytized to other employees was thrown out by the state high court.

Catholic Healthcare West Medical Foundation (CHW) had shown religious prejudice against Terence Silo, an employee who had been hired to work in its medical records department in Sacramento.  He experienced a religious conversion more than a year later.  He testified at the trial, “I gave my life to Christ.  My heart was filed with the Holy Spirit and my life was changed.”  Silo met with the manager at the clinic after already having received a poor performance evaluation in January 1993.  Silo had told a fellow employee not “to use the name of God in vain,” and she complained. Silo had also been “preaching” to a patient that he denied.  Silo was admonished by the managers.  The court recounted in Silo v. CHW Medical Foundation that he was not to use the word “God…unless it’s off the clock” — not during work time.  The following month Silo was placed on probation and unless he got more work done he was worried he would lose his job.

The termination papers cited three incidents in which Silo continued to “preach” and “soul save” despite warnings, when he was fired that April.  Harassment was the complaint of three of his co-workers.  Silo insisted his religious discussion had occurred during his lunch hour, and he denied he had harassed anyone.

It was denied by Catholic Healthcare West that they had discriminated on the basis of religion against Silo.  The health foundation claimed that Silo was fired because of work performance.  The organization, which operates 42 hospitals in California, Nevada, and Arizona, told that it had a policy against religious discrimination.

On the grounds that the foundation could be held liable under the State Fair Employment and Housing Act, the Third District Court of Appeal initially ruled for Silo.

In light of precedents that have held religious organizations exempt from the anti-discrimination law, the California Supreme Court asked the Court of Appeals to reconsider that decision.

Since the California Constitution bars religious discrimination in the workplace, the appeals court then decided that Silo could prevail.  Employers had to try to accommodate an employee’s religious practices under the state constitution.

In 1999 and 2000, the Legislature passed amendments to the states for employment law that will allow some religious discrimination lawsuits against religiously affiliated hospitals.  Since the case was filed before their passage, the court did not rule on the constitutionality of those amendments on May 16, 2002.

Justice Carlos R. Moreno wrote for the court, religion needs “considerable discretion to choose employees who will not interfere with their religious mission,” but secular employers can still be held liable for religious discrimination.

The decision and other rulings permit religious organizations to make hiring and firing decisions solely on the basis of one’s creed said attorneys in the case.

Jeffrey A. Berman, who represented several churches and religious groups in the case said the court held that the U.S. and California Constitution protect thousands of religious employers — including religious publishing houses, television and radio stations and churches and schools — for litigation.  Berman continued, “The impact of this is great for religious institutions.  It indicates that the California Supreme Court is sensitive to the issue of religious autonomy and to both the state and federal constitutional rights of religious to regulate themselves.”

The decision indicated that the court, even with the more recent amendments to the fair employment law, viewed religious discrimination cases differently from other types of discrimination claims said Stephen W. Parrish, who represented Catholic Healthcare West.  In fact, if a religious employer were sued for sex discrimination the court noted that it might rule another way.

Justice Carlos R. Moreno wrote, “It is evident that restricting a religious employer’s ability to control religious speech in the workplace raises different constitutional issues than does a prohibition of sexual discrimination.”

Extremely complex are religious discrimination lawsuits said Parrish, “You almost need to seek legal advice before you do anything because these are such sensitive issues.”

The decision demonstrates that the court realizes that the “breadth of a religious organization’s mission is not limited to houses of worship,” said Steven Drapkin, who in the case represented a religious freedom organization.

As an entity operated by the Roman Catholic church in the U.S., the organization is exempt from state taxation.  However, not limiting its service to Roman Catholic is Catholic Healthcare West and it does not sponsor or conduct religious services or Bible studies on its premises or display religious symbols and does not have a chaplain or chapel.

Anthony J. Poidmore, who represented Silo, has advocated religious freedom in many of his legal cases and believes the court properly gave “more clear protection to what I term legitimately religious employers.”

Since it is really a secular institution, Poidmore said he objected to the fact the the medical foundation was protected by its religious affliliation.

Pleased that the court has recognized the rights of religious institutions was William J. Hunt, president and chief executive of Catholic Healthcare West.

Hunt said, “We have an obligation to look out for the interest of all our employees and patients.  This ruling reinforces our ability to do that in accordance with our own beliefs.”

(Maura Dolan, “Ruling Upholds Firing on Basis of Religious Law:  Catholic Medical Clinic can dismiss an evangelical Christian proselytizer, court finds,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2002.)

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