The Law Behind the Waldron Mercy Academy Firing

July 21, 2015 by Julie A. Uebler, Esq.

In June 2015, Waldron Mercy Academy, a private Catholic school, elected not to renew the employment agreement for Margie Winters, its Director of Religious Education. In communications to teachers and parents, which have since been reported in the press, the school implicitly confirmed that the termination of the employment relationship was prompted by the fact that Ms. Winters is in a gay marriage. Parents and politicians have called for Ms. Winters’ reinstatement, and Philadelphia’s Archbishop, Charles Chaput, has expressed support for the school, which is run by the religious order The Sisters of Mercy.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision relating to same-sex marriage, we have seen increased attention on other legal issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, including the question of whether these characteristics are or should be “protected” classifications for purposes of the employment discrimination laws. Today, the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance and some local ordinances, including the one in Lower Merion where Waldron Mercy sits, prohibit discrimination in employment because of an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity, but those protections are not included in the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act or the federal anti-discrimination laws.

The real issue in this case, however, is not whether the protections from employment discrimination extend to sexual orientation or gender identity, but whether, and under what circumstances, religious institutions are legally required to comply with the civil rights laws. As we know, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, in part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The courts have consistently found that the First Amendment prevents any law from interfering with the employment relationship between a religious institution and its “ministers,” which is the so-called “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination statutes.

In 2012, in a case captioned Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, the Supreme Court confirmed the parameters of the ministerial exception, finding it was necessary to protect a religious group’s ability to freely decide whether to enter or retain an employment relationship with any of its “ministers.” The court found that prohibiting a religious institution from making unfettered decisions about its internal governance, including selecting or rejecting those who would personify its beliefs, infringed on religious freedom.

Although there is plenty to debate on the moral, political, or cultural aspects of this particular case, as an employment law matter, there is little to dispute. In the Waldron Mercy situation, the school appears to have made a decision to end an employment relationship with a ministerial employee (a religion teacher) because of the teacher’s failure to comport to the school’s religious practices, a decision that appears to be squarely protected by court’s opinion in Hosanna-Tabor. Of course, not all employees of religious organizations are “ministers.” For those who work for religious groups in a non-ministerial or “lay” capacity, the employment laws will still protect you from otherwise illegal discrimination. If you are one of those employees, and you don’t know how you are classified, it might be a good time to find out.

Julie A. Uebler, Partner | Employment Law