GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A federal court has ruled that Christian ministries can hire or fire persons in accordance with their religious beliefs.
As previously reported, Alyce Conlon had filed suit against InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVF) after she was fired for failing to reconcile marital problems with her husband. She had worked as a spiritual director from 2004 to 2011, providing biblical guidance and leading employees in prayer.
Conlon was placed on paid leave to give her time to resolve the issues as she and her husband were considering separation or divorce. Officials with IVF also worked with the couple to reconcile. She was fired in Dec. 2011 after the organization stated that it had “not seen enough progress” between the two in healing their marriage. Her husband filed for divorce a month later.
“This belief is in line with … position descriptions which state that our employees are to be maturing disciples of Christ,” IVF outlined in a letter that was filed with the lawsuit. “When there are significant marital issues, we encourage employees to seek appropriate help to move towards reconciliation.”
The organization also stated that it is important “to consider the impact of any separation/divorce on colleagues, students, faculty, and donors.”
Conlon filed suit against IVF in 2o12 alleging discrimination, and the organization responded by pointing to the ministerial exception allowed by the courts under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. The federal district court agreed and dismissed Conlon’s claims. She appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On Thursday, the court upheld the ruling.
“Because IVCF is a religious organization and Conlon was a ministerial employee, IVCF’s decision to terminate her employment cannot be challenged under federal or state employment discrimination laws,” the three-judge panel declared. “The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses do not permit federal or state courts to adjudicate such matters when the defendant properly asserts the ministerial exception as an affirmative defense.”
It pointed to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which declared, “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.” Although the high court ruling centered on churches, the appeals court judges ruled that it should also apply to religious groups.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which had filed a friend of the court brief in the case, applauded the Sixth Circuit decision.
“As the Sixth Circuit affirmed, the ability of faith-based groups to make employment decisions consistent with the very faith they espouse is a ‘structural limitation imposed on the government by the Religion Clauses [of the First Amendment], a limitation that can never be waived,'” Senior Legal Counsel David Hacker said in a statement. “The court was right to recognize that this freedom extends to groups beyond just those that are directly run by churches and denominations.”
“No one should be coerced by the government to act contrary to their deepest, historically recognized faith convictions,” he added.