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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Woman Fired For Broken Marriage Cannot Sue

(CN) - A spiritual director for a Christian evangelical organization fired for contemplating divorce cannot sue her former employer, the 6th Circuit ruled.

"The government cannot dictate to a religious organization who its spiritual leaders would be," U.S. Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder said, writing for the three-judge panel.

Alyce Conlon worked in Michigan as a spiritual director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, an organization that ministers to college students.

The organization states that it "believes in the sanctity of marriage and desires that all married employees honor their marriage vows," and reserves the right to "consider the impact of any separation/divorce on colleagues, students, faculty and donors."

In 2011, Conlon told her bosses that she was having marital difficulties, and was put on leave, which was initially paid, then unpaid.

She was fired at the end of the year for failing to mend her broken marriage. One month later, her husband filed for divorce.

Conlon sued IVCF for firing her, alleging that she knew two male employees who divorced their wives but were allowed to keep their jobs.

But a federal judge dismissed her case, and the 6th Circuit affirmed last week, relying on the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 determination in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious leaders at religious organizations.

"Part of Conlon's duties was to assist others to cultivate 'intimacy with God and growth in Christ-like character through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines,'" a ministerial function that satisfies the requirements of the religious exemption.

Although not a "pastor," "reverend," "priest," or "rabbi," Conlon's title of "spiritual director" conveys a religious meaning, the court said.

And while IVCF is not a church, it is clearly a religious affiliated entity, the opinion stated.

"The parties point to no historical example in which the founding generation permitted any arm of the federal government - including the judiciary - to order a religious organization to accept or retain in a ministerial position a person whom the organization deemed unfit for ministry," Batchelder said.

The judge concluded her opinion by quoting the Supreme Court's unanimous opinion in Hosanna-Tabor: "When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way."

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