California Court Applies Ministerial Exception to FEHA
In Henry v. Red Hill Evangelical Lutheran, the plaintiff was a preschool teacher and the director of preschool education at a private preschool run by a Tustin, California Lutheran church. The school terminated her employment after if found that the plaintiff was living with her boyfriend and raising their children together, without being married. The school required that all students and teachers be "practicing Christians." The school felt that the plaintiff's lifestyle was violating the church teaching and commitment to live as a practicing Christian. It decided to end the employment relationship on this ground.
The plaintiff, Sara Henry, subsequently sued and alleged that her termination violated the California Fair Employment and Housing Act 's prohibition against marital discrimination. The Lutheran school argued that the lawsuit was barred because FEHA's definition of "employer" does not include a non-profit religious corporation. The school further argued that Henry could not allege a common law wrongful termination action either in this situation, whether it is based on FEHA or the California Constitution. The court agreed, holding that the ministerial exception to FEHA set forth in section 12926(d) of the Government Code barred the claim and that the California Constitution did not support the lawsuit either.
This is one of the first California published opinions to discuss the ministerial exception to FEHA. Although the case appears clear cut on its face, it is plausible that the decision may have been different if the plaintiff had been able to present evidence that the school was aware of other teachers/administrators who were not living their lives as "practicing Christians" in accordance with the principles of the school and church. Religious institutions dealing with similar situations should be aware not only of the scope of coverage of the ministerial exception, but also that should apply their religious principles equally and fairly in order to receive a similar result as in Red Hill Evangelical Lutheran, under similar factual circumstances. Lawyers advising religious institutions should understand that good plaintiffs' attorneys will attempt to be very aggressive in discovery proceedings to uncover evidence of unequal treatment.