Federal Court rules churches can follow religious beliefs regarding sexual conduct in employment practices

In a recent ruling, Federal District Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas acknowledged that federal law does not require churches and religious employers to hire employees who violate the organization’s religious beliefs regarding the sexual behavior.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) must grant exemptions from Title VII employment discrimination regulations under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment, in particularly with respect to hiring and employment practices involving homosexual, bisexual and transgender employees.

Plaintiffs Bear Creek Bible Church, a nondenominational church in Keller, and Braidwood Management Group, which operates several health-related for-profit businesses in Katy, sued the EEOC over its Title VII enforcement against organizations like theirs. . The plaintiffs also sought certification as a class action.

The case was originally filed in 2018 against EEOC guidelines that defined sex discrimination as including sexual orientation or gender identity. He has been suspended pending the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Bostock in July 2020.

“This is a monumental victory for religious freedom rights for religious employers across the country, not just churches. Employers with strong beliefs are not required to sacrifice those beliefs to make cases,” said America First Legal (AFL) General Counsel Gene Hamilton, who represents the plaintiffs. The Texan.

As the court pointed out in its decision, while the EEOC wanted to erase any distinction between biological sexes, “Bostock reinforces the distinction between the biological sexes and argued that treating one sex worse than the other constitutes sex discrimination. The Supreme Court has long recognized the need for privacy in enclosed spaces, bathrooms and locker rooms to protect people with anatomical differences – differences based on biological sex.

“This is the first decision to emphasize that distinctions are not erased,” Hamilton said. “The fight continues for the fundamental truth that biological sex differences exist.”

In his decision, O’Connor determined that Bear Creek Bible Church was exempt from Title VII as a religious employer, even with respect to its non-ministerial employees, stating, “Thus, a religious employer is not liable in under Title VII when refusing to employ an individual because of their sexual orientation or gender expression, based on religious observance, practice or belief.

O’Connor did not certify Bear Creek Bible Church as a class representative for all churches, but he did certify Braidwood as a class representative for commercial type religious employers.

Although Braidwood is subject to Title VII of the Employment Discrimination Act, as a business operating with sincere religious beliefs, it may seek protection under the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act (RFRA ) as his religious beliefs have been significantly burdened by employment legislation.

RFRA was passed in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton as a measure to “establish rights beyond the protections afforded by the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause by creating a heightened standard of review for government actions which significantly interfere with the exercise of a person’s religion”.

In its analysis of Braidwood’s application for RFRA protection, the court used the strict two-pronged scrutiny test. First, the EEOC must demonstrate a compelling interest and, second, that it has used the least restrictive means possible.

The order states that the EEOC has failed any part of the strict review test. Although the government argued that its compelling interest was to end workplace discrimination, the court found that this was an overly broad statement of its interest.

Instead, O’Connor said the inquiry was, more specifically, what compelling interest the EEOC had in denying Braidwood a religious exemption. Because he did not provide such a specific interest, he failed on this prong.

Additionally, O’Connor determined that the EEOC failed to use the least restrictive means possible. “Forcing a religious employer to hire, retain and accommodate employees who conduct themselves contrary to the employer’s views regarding homosexuality and gender identity is not the least restrictive way to promote this interest, particularly when the defendants are prepared to make exceptions to Title VII for secular reasons. purposes. »

O’Connor’s reasoning was similar when considering Braidwood’s First Amendment free exercise claim. He acknowledged that the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Employment Division v Smith requires that a law be generally applicable, however, it adopted the reasoning of the recently decided case of Fulton vs. City of Philadelphia in which the Supreme Court noted that a law granting non-religious exemptions is not generally applicable and therefore triggers the strict control test.

Title VII provides multiple exemptions, including those for businesses with fewer than 15 employees and an exemption allowing discrimination against members of the Communist Party. If Title VII allows these exemptions, it must consider religious exemptions and use the least restrictive means to do so.

Quoting the hobby hall 2014 case, O’Connor said, “Courts must ‘consider the alleged harm of granting specific exemptions to particular religious claimants’ and ‘consider the marginal interest in enforcing’ the challenged government action in this particular context.

Several Braidwood policies regarding bathrooms and gay dress codes were also at issue.

“The court said that any employer, for religious or non-religious reasons, can maintain gay bathrooms and dress codes,” Hamilton pointed out. “This is a resounding victory for employers across the country.

The federal government has 60 days to appeal after the judge issues his final order.

“Until the federal government convinces a higher court that the judgment is wrong, we have a case with national implications because it is a class action lawsuit,” Hamilton said.