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California Catholic school sued over firing gay teacher

Workers under protected classes designated by state and federal employment laws may not be discriminated against by Los Angeles employers. In California, it is illegal for employers to mistreat workers due to sexual orientation. Provisions within the Constitution permit religious groups to bypass the rules that apply to secular employers.

A ministerial exception doctrine has been used successfully by religious organizations to justify worker discrimination. First Amendment religious freedom clauses have been interpreted to mean that the government cannot dictate the hiring and firing choices of non-secular employers. The New York Times reported a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that supported the firing of a Lutheran schoolteacher with narcolepsy, because a small portion of her work included "ministerial" duties.

The religious employer was allowed to use disability as a reason to fire the teacher. The high court backed the church's constitutional right to select its own ministers without government interference. A new California case may test the court's definition of ministerial work.

A Glendora man has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Catholic school where worked as a teacher for over 15 years. The March complaint alleges administrators at St. Lucy's Priory High School fired the worker last summer, two weeks following the gay teacher's marriage. The school is using ministerial exception to fight the employment discrimination charges.

The exception applies to religious workers who minister or, as the Supreme Court put it in 2012, serve as religious "messengers" or teachers of faith. The gay teacher taught several classes at St. Lucy's, but the lawsuit suggested none involved religious instruction. The legal action noted that the teacher and his partner attended school events as a couple and co-workers, administrators and students knew the plaintiff was gay.

Conflicting and ever-changing employment laws make it difficult for workers to know what protections they have. An attorney can help clarify a concerned worker's legal position.

Source: Beverly Hills Courier, "Teacher Fired For Marrying His Gay Partner" CIty News Service, Jun. 18, 2014

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