Sunday, February 8, 2015

Religious Organizations Can Hire (And Fire) For Religious Reasons


Alyce Conlon was employed by the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA (IVCF) in Michigan as a spiritual director. IVCF is an interdenominational, Christian, student-led ministry, which has been involved on college campuses for more than 70 years. The organization’s beliefs and ideals can be further explained on their website. Her duties here included providing religious counsel and prayer to students. When Mrs. Conlon informed the organization that she was contemplating divorce, IVCF put her on paid, and later unpaid, leave. Her employment with IVCF was then terminated.  Included in IVCF’s employment policy is that “where there are significant marital issues, IVCF encourages employees to seek appropriate help to move towards reconciliation” and reserves the right to consider the impact of separation or divorce on people the employee may interact with.

Alyce Conlon filed a lawsuit against InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA alleging that the termination of her employment violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Michigan law.

The key factor to consider in whether or not Conlon has the right to claim her firing because her marriage was headed to divorce is ministerial exception. Ministerial exception, which was first seen in the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Churchand School v. EEOC , entails that religious employers may discriminate against their employees without any court review.  This case is also the first opportunity since the Hosanna-Taylor ccase for this court to address ministerial exception.  Ministerial exception is grounded in the First Amendment and precludes the application of Title VII and other employment discrimination claims concerning the relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.  Both parties agree that the ministerial exception typically applies to federal employment-law claims. The dispute arose because Conlon claims IVCF waived the exception. However, whether the exception attaches at all is purely a question of law i.e. the ministerial exception is a limitation that can never be waived.

On February 5, 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s attempt to enforce state and federal gender discrimination laws on one of the nation’s largest Christian campus ministries.

Some cases of ministerial exception may provide for a slippery slope, however, I do not believe that there is a slippery slope in this ruling. Although Conlon did not directly serve the organization as a minister per say, her role as a spiritual director implies that most of the work she did was ministerial in nature. Both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause prohibit the government from interfering with the decision of a religious organization to fire one of its ministers.

Although IVCF is not a church, the purpose of the organization is to advance the practice of Christianity in college and is a religious group, as is defined under Hosanna-Tabor. The organization’s employment policy even states that separation or divorce could cause IVCF to consider the impact of such an event on the individual’s position within the organization. It is evident that ICVF, as a Christian organization, wants “ministers” who they employ to spread Christianity throughout college campuses to embody the highest Christian ideals. It is therefore evident that a poor marriage, in IVCF’s eyes would in turn inhibit the ability for Conlon to spread the organization’s message effectively to the students. Here the sincerity of the religious practice is key to the very foundation of IVCF, giving them had every right to fire Mrs. Conlon from her position as spiritual director.


This ruling is now considered an important precedent in protecting religious institutions from government entanglement. How long will it be until another case comes along to uproot this precedent? I believe one recent event that could find issues or solace in this ruling is the Indiana Senate Bill 127 that would allow religious affiliated organizations to hire people based on their religion. Conlon’s case could be used in this instance to provide basis or argument against the passing of this bill. It will be interesting to see how Conlon v. IVCF will be used by courts throughout the nation in future discrimination lawsuits against religious organizations.

3 comments:

Ben K. said...

I agree with the opinion that the religious organization of ICVF has the right to fire Conlon under the principle of the free exercise clause of the 1st Amendment. This case can be tied to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which placed more strict obligations on the federal and state government to not interfere with free exercise. The ICVF has the ability as a religious institution to include certain obligations of their workers. As long as the grounds are religious, which in this case seems to be the reasoning, the secular government must allow the free exercise of the ICVF to continue.

Emily C. said...

If the government were to deem the firing of Conlon by InterVarsity unconstitutional, it would be putting itself in a place that determines what doctrines are acceptable to which religions. The issue of marriage--namely, divorce--is central to many Christians, and is clearly a central issue to IVCF, so the government would be determining what is legitimate religion, and what is not. This very practice is one of Madison's fears of entangling the church and the state that he discusses in Memorial and Remonstrance.

Ana M. said...

I agree that IVCF had the right to fire Conlon based on their religious beliefs because they did not support Conlon’s decision to get a divorce. It is clear that IVCF’s mission is to protect their religious organization. If the organization believes that Conlon had become a “bad example” and could not represent their organization to the fullest, then they had to right to fire her.