A former “spiritual director” for a national Christian evangelical ministry serving colleges and universities can’t sue the organization for gender discrimination because of the so-called ministerial exemption to anti-bias laws, a federal appeals panel has ruled.
As a result, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals refused to reinstate Alyce Conlon’s employment-based suit against InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA (IVCF) because the job she lost had ministerial responsibilities.
Conlon contended that IVCF illegally put her on leave and then fired her because she and her husband were having marital difficulties but didn’t discipline or terminate at least two male employees who divorced their wives.
IVCF policy “encourages employees to seek appropriate help to move toward reconciliation” when there are marriage problems and reserves the right “to consider the impact of any separation/divorce on colleagues, students, faculty and donors,” the decision said.
According to court documents, Conlon began to work for the organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1986 and was terminated in 2011 after she disclosed her marital problems to a supervisor.
The suit alleged violations of Title VII and Michigan’s civil rights law.
A lower-court judge dismissed the case.
In upholding that ruling, the 6th Circuit said Conlon’s formal title and religious function shield IVCF from liability under the ministerial exception.
Under the First Amendment, “the historical practice has always been that the government cannot dictate to a religious organization who its spiritual leaders would be,” Judge Alice Batchedler wrote for the panel.
That reasoning applies to IVCF, although it isn’t a church, she said.
She said Conlon carried out a “ministerial function” because her duties included helping others “to cultivate intimacy with God and growth in Christ-like character through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines.”
Disability suit rebuffed
A federal appeals court has rebuffed disability discrimination claims by an ex-student who was dropped from a doctoral program at Southern Illinois University after failing part of his preliminary exam for the fourth time.
Patrick Novak didn’t offer evidence to prove his allegation that SIU dismissed him from its Curriculum and Instruction program because he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Even if the professors who gave Novak failing grades had made errors in evaluating his work, “any lapse hardly supports the inference that the faculty members were involved in something other than a bona fide professional enterprise throughout the course of their assessment,” Judge Kenneth Rippled wrote for the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals panel.
During Novak’s undergraduate years at SIU, the university had granted his requested accommodations, the decision said.
Similarly, as a doctoral student, he requested and received extra time to complete the three-day preliminary exam.
He passed Day 1 on the first attempt and passed Day 2 on his second try. However, he failed Day 3 each of the four times he took it, the court said. The university then terminated him but awarded a master’s degree.
A lower-court judge dismissed his lawsuit alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act.
In rejecting Novak’s bid to reinstate the case, the unanimous appeals court found no evidence that the professors acted for improper reasons.
“Any inference of discriminatory intent would be unreasonable in light of the undisputed evidence that the university had repeatedly accommodated his PTSD and bent over backwards to give him opportunities and assistance beyond those required by department policy in an effort to help him pass his preliminary examination,” the court said.