THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — A Christian school in California has won a complicated legal battle regarding two teachers who sued the school after their contracts weren’t renewed as they refused to provide proof of their Christian faith.
Little Oaks Elementary School is a pre-k through 5th grade institution owned by Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks. As previously reported, the church purchased the school in 2009, and in 2012, required all teachers to complete a form affirming their faith in Christ as a part of the renewal of their teaching contract.
However, two of the teachers, Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara, refused to submit the document, which in addition to outlining a statement of faith, mandates that a pastor attest to their church attendance and Christian beliefs.
Because the women would not obtain the required pastoral reference as a part of the renewal process, they were both dismissed from their jobs. One of the teachers had been hired prior to Calvary Chapel’s purchasing of the facility.
The women then threatened to sue the school after being fired, stating that they were being discriminated against.
“They did not believe they should be required to obtain a pastoral reference in order to continue their employment,” Dawn Coulson, attorney for the teachers, wrote in a letter to officials at Calvary Chapel.
In court, Coulson argued that because the organization was not set up as a non-profit entity, although it is owned by a church, it should not be permitted to require teachers to submit pastoral references.
However, attorneys for Little Oaks Elementary School noted that federal case law affirms the right of religious organizations to set their own criteria for who they will and will not employ, and to make hiring decisions consistent with their faith.
On Monday, Ventura County Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh agreed with the school, citing the ministerial exception in the law. While the teachers themselves were not ordained ministers, attorneys for Little Oaks Elementary School had contended that they still served in a ministerial capacity in training the children in Christianity.
“[T]he ministerial exception is constitutionally compelled and arises out of the Establishment and Free exercise clauses of the First Amendment,” he wrote. “It is based on the concept that secular courts will not attempt to right wrongs related to hiring, firing, discipline or administration of clergy. It extends to church related institutions which have a substantial religious character, which includes church-related schools.”
Attorneys for the school state that they are pleased with the outcome of the case.
“We are grateful that this Court has chosen to protect the liberty of Little Oaks School,” commented attorney James Long in a press release on Wednesday. “It only makes sense that a Christian school has the constitutional right to require that its teachers provide a reference from a pastor.”
“This case is a great example of why we need to continue to stand for religious liberty regardless of the cultural climate,” added Robert Tyler, general counsel of the Christian legal group Advocates for Faith & Freedom. “We can win as long as we show-up to defend our constitutional rights.”