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1365997_church.jpgA recent ruling by the Supreme Court has brought to light a legal issue regarding employees of religious institutions that was fairly unknown. “Ministerial exception” is a doctrine that allows religious institutions to make employment decisions without the interference of the federal government. Most employers are governed in part by several federal laws that prevent discrimination and wrongful termination based on age, race, religion, place of origin, and gender. However, those employees who work for church-affiliated organizations may find these laws do not protect them.

In some situations, ministerial exception appears to make sense. A Catholic church should not be forced to hire a Jewish rabbi to perform their services because they are not allowed to discriminate against anyone based on religion. But when it comes to employees such as administrators, school teachers, and hospital workers, when the exception should apply is unclear. In the case heard by the Supreme Court, a school teacher was terminated and she filed a discrimination lawsuit claiming she has been terminated because she had narcolepsy, a sleeping disorder. Officials at the parochial school claimed the lawsuit was invalid because she worked for a religious institution and their decision was covered by the ministerial exception. The Supreme Court agreed.

Two cases that were filed recently illustrate the need for greater definition as to whom the exception applies and to whom it does not apply. In an Indiana discrimination lawsuit, a woman claims she was fired from her teaching position at a Catholic school because she and her husband were attempting to have another child through in vitro fertilization. She had been undergoing the treatments for about a year when the church school didn’t renew her 2010 teaching contract. She was told she was terminated because she had gone against the beliefs of the Catholic Church when she started the in vitro treatments and that “[t]he Diocese has clear policies requiring that teachers in its schools must, as a condition of employment, have a knowledge of and respect for the Catholic faith, and abide by the tenets of the Catholic Church as those tenets apply to that person.”
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An Ohio man who successfully sued his employer under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prevailed once again on appeal in front of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. Jon Spengler was fifty-three years old when he started as a seasonal employee in charge of spray-washing pressure cylinders designed to hold propane and other industrial gases. Despite his above average performance, Spengler was repeatedly not promoted to regular full-time status like many of his high-achieving counterparts.

A supervisor attempted to quell Spengler’s questions about promotion by telling Spengler that he would recommend a transfer to the Steel Division because Spengler would “probably have trouble keeping up with the younger guys” in the Cylinder Division. When Spengler reported such comments to the Plant Manager, that supervisor was admonished. Less than four weeks later, the plant terminated Spengler because of “negative comments” from his co-workers concerning Spengler’s “attitude and interpersonal skills”.

After his firing, Spengler continued to defend his right to work and filed an EEOC complaint against Worthington Cylinders. Within five months of his firing, he also retained counsel and brought the ADEA claims.

Given the notorious high standards of proof under ADEA, Spengler’s age discrimination claim did not survive summary judgment. But because he prudently raised his concerns to a supervising manager at the early stages of the situation, his retaliation claim had legs. The jury awarded him about $22K for lost wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages.
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Employment lawyer, Jane Branstetter Stranch, has been appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Ms. Stranch was appointed by President Obama to be a member of the Sixth Circuit in August 2009 and was affirmed by the U.S. Senate this week. The Sixth Circuit hears cases appealed from U.S. District Court in Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan and Ohio.

Stranch worked primarily at Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings law firm, which was founded by her father. She specializing in complex labor and employment litigation. The date for her swearing in ceremony has not been set.