Religious Discrimination Exemption Bars Employee’s Title VII Claims against Catholic Facility Based on Religious Attire

Religious Discrimination: Adopting a broad interpretation of the word “employment” in Title VII’s exemption for religious organizations, the Fourth Circuit nullified the employee’s workplace harassment, retaliation, and discriminatory termination claims. In the case, Lori Kennedy, a geriatric nurse, sued her former employer, St. Catherine, alleging employment discrimination stemming from Ms. Kennedy’s religious attire. As a member of the Church of the Brethren, Ms. Kennedy wore “modest garb” including long dresses or skirts and a hair covering. St. Catherine, a Catholic facility, told Ms. Kennedy that her attire was inappropriate for the facility. Ms. Kennedy was fired after she refused to change her attire.

Title VII includes various exemptions, including one for religious organizations as follows:

This subchapter [of Title VII] shall not apply to . . .a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.

The EEOC Compliance Manual had stated that, for purposes of this exemption, “employment” should be narrowly construed to mean only “employment decisions,” such as hiring and firing. Relying on the EEOC’s interpretation, the district court had concluded that St. Catherine’s decision to terminate Ms. Kennedy was an exempt “employment decision” that was outside of Title VII’s reach, but that the workplace harassment and retaliation claims were not “employment decisions” and therefore could be the basis for Title VII claims.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed, and held that limiting the religious organization exemption to “employment decisions,” as opposed to all aspects of the employment relationship, was “simply incompatible” with the statute. As a consequence, Ms. Kennedy’s harassment and retaliation claims — like her discriminatory firing claim — could not survive.

According to the dissent, “in one fell swoop,” through this opinion, the Fourth Circuit has “shielded religious organizations from every Title VII claim alleging either religious harassment or retaliation for opposing such harassment.”

Lori Kennedy v. St Joseph’s Ministries, Inc., d/b/a St. Joseph’s Ministries, No. 10-1792, Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore, Paul W. Grimm, Magistrate Judge. Decided: September 14, 2011 before KING, SHEDD, and WYNN, Circuit Judges. Reversed and remanded by published opinion. Judge Shedd wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge Wynn joined. Judge King wrote a dissenting opinion.