(CN) – Two Catholic nuns who claim the American Red Cross fired them from their volunteer positions because of their religious beliefs cannot sue the non-profit because they do not qualify as employees, the 6th Circuit ruled.
Sisters Michael Marie and Mary Cabrini are traditional Catholic nuns with the Order of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. They wear habits and crosses as a sign of their religious devotion.
Traditionalist Catholics are Roman Catholics who believe the liturgy should be restored to its pre-Vatican II form, the Latin Mass. Some believe that the current Mass is displeasing to God and not truly Catholic.
The nuns have dedicated their lives to helping the poor, and as part of that calling, both sisters served as volunteers for the First Capital District Chapter of American Red Cross and Ross County Emergency Management Agency (RCEMA) at least once a week for approximately 10 years.
Both claim they were recommended for promotions within the volunteer divisions, but say Mary McCord, executive director of the First Capital American Red Cross, refused to allow the promotions because she is a Roman Catholic, and held negative views towards traditionalist Catholics.
McCord also holds a board position at Ross County Emergency Management Agency, where the sisters were fired after they sent a letter to the board expressing disappointment that their skills were not better used.
The sisters sued the agencies in 2011, asserting claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and violations of their right to free exercise of religion.
But the 6th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of their suit Friday, because there is no way the sisters could be considered employees of either agency.
“The Red Cross and RCEMA not only did not provide a regular salary to the Sisters, but they also did not provide them with traditional benefits such as medical, vision, or dental insurance. As these types of benefits are often present in the employment relationship, their absence also weighs against a finding that the Sisters were employees,” U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove said, writing for the three-judge panel.
The possibility of promotion, access to opportunities, and increased standing in the community are too speculative to constitute non-financial remuneration which might qualify them as employees, the court said.
“Even if RCEMA and the Red Cross would have threatened to sever their volunteer relationship with the Sisters upon their refusal to adhere to a set schedule or to accept the tasks given them, this does not necessarily show that the agencies exercised any real control over the Sisters. Unlike most employees, the Sisters are not economically reliant on RCEMA or the Red Cross in any real or measurable way,” since they receive all living expenses from their order, the 28-page opinion states.
Van Tatenhove also noted that the sisters’ complaint describes their supervisor, David Bethel, as initially being friendly toward them, although he knew then that they were traditionalist Catholic nuns, and as only later showing hostility.
“That Bethel knew of their religion and that he avoided and treated them in a hostile manner after a period of time does not necessarily show that the former is the reason for the latter,” the judge said. “If Bethel knew of the Sisters’ religious convictions and their expressions of these beliefs at the beginning of his tenure, when he was by their own admission still friendly to the Sisters, religious animus would not explain why he began avoiding them or treating them in an increasingly hostile manner.”