July 15, 2019

July 15, 2019

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July 12, 2019

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Employee Fired for Getting Divorce Cannot Raise Claim Against Former Religious Employer

As I noted in my last article, the First Amendment does much more than give a person the right to the freedom of speech.  For example, the First Amendment contains the Religion Clauses, one of which allows religious organizations to make ecclesiastical decisions without government involvement—what is called the "ministerial exception" to claims of employment discrimination. In this case, the First Amendment provided Intervarsity Christian Fellowship/USA entitlement to the ministerial exception.

The plaintiff, Alyce Conlon, was a spiritual director at IVCF.  When she informed her superiors that she and her husband were considering divorce, IVCF put her on paid leave of absence so that she could work on her marriage. Despite attending counseling sessions and communicating to IVCF regarding her progress, IVCF eventually terminated her for "failing to reconcile her marriage." Ms. Conlon sued IVCF for employment discrimination, alleging that IVCF treated her differently than similarly situated male employees who divorced their female spouses.

IVCF argued that the ministerial exception barred Ms. Conlon's claims of employment discrimination. The Western District of Michigan agreed, and thus dismissed Ms. Conlon's claims. Ms. Conlon argued that the ministerial exception did not apply because, according to her, it only applies when the employment decision is made for religious reasons. Citing to the Supreme Court, the Western District of Michigan said that the ministerial exception applies regardless why the organization made the decision; the First Amendment's Religion Clauses allow a religious organization to decide who will minister to its faithful regardless of why the decision is made.

As a tactical standpoint, it is important for a religious organization to understand when the ministerial exception may apply. As was the case here, it allowed IVCF to have the plaintiff's claims dismissed solely based upon the allegations in the complaint. Thus, IVCF was able to avoid many expenses in the litigation through a timely and effective defense of the matter.

© 2019 Varnum LLP

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About this Author

Kyle Konwinski, Litigation lawyer, Varnum
Associate

Kyle’s practice is commercial litigation. He has represented clients in a wide array of litigation, including trials, administrative trials, and on appeal. He has unique experience in environmental/land-use litigation and Employee Retirement Income Security Act litigation. Kyle has recovered millions of dollars for companies throughout the state that were victims of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan's ERISA violations.

As for the environmental and land use area, Kyle has trial and appellate experience with contested case hearings in the Michigan Administrative...

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