(CN) – Church employers who advertise jobs that are not specifically religious in nature cannot demand that applicants are members of the faith, the European Court of Justice ruled Tuesday.
According to the ruling from the Luxembourg-based court, churches can only reject a prospective employee on religious grounds if belonging to the church “is objectively required for the job.”
The case came to the court from Germany, where Diakonie, a Protestant charity, published an advertisement for a temporary consultant to prepare a report on Germany’s compliance the United Nation’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Among the qualifications that the charity sought for the anticipated 18-month job, was that applicants be members of the church and that they note that fact on their resumes.
Vera Egenberger, of Berlin, didn’t belong to the church, but decided to apply anyway because she had previously done work involving anti-racism reporting and the United Nations. Because of her experience, Egengerger was shortlisted for the job after a preliminary selection by Evangelisches Werk, but she was not invited to an interview.
Eventually, she received her application back without comment. Believing she was rejected mere because she did not belong to the Protestant church, Egenberger sued the church for 10,000 euros (about $12,400) in compensation.
The case then bounced between German courts until the Federal Labour Court asked the European Court of Justice to determine whether the Diakonie application requirements comported with EU anti-discrimination laws.
In its ruling on Tuesday, the court said churches do enjoy some special privileges when it comes to employment.
“In very limited circumstances, a difference of treatment may be justified where a characteristic related to religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation constitutes a genuine and determining occupational requirement, when the objective is legitimate and the requirement is proportionate,” the court said.
“Thus the lawfulness from the point of view of that provision of a difference of treatment on grounds of religion or belief depends on the objectively verifiable existence of a direct link between the occupational requirement imposed by the employer and the activity concerned,” the ruling said. “Such a link may follow either from the nature of the activity, for example where it involves taking part in the determination of the ethos of the church or organisation in question or contributing to its mission of proclamation, or else from the circumstances in which the activity is to be carried out, such as the need to ensure a credible presentation of the church or organisation to the outside world.”
But the court went on to say that in order to be a lawful requirement, a balance needs to be struck between the needs of the church and an individual’s right to have an equal chance at employment.
Churches can only hire people based on faith when there is a “clear, legal and justified demand for it based on the method of the organization,” the court said.
The court stopped short of deciding the ultimate outcome of the case, saying the German national court in Dusseldorf will now have to determine whether Egenberger has a legitimate claim to compensation.