Category Religious Freedom and Rights
Title The Role and Importance of State Level Religious Protections
Author/s John Kaempf, Attorney at Law
Preview The Role and Importance of State Level Religious Protections
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The Role and Importance of State Level Religious Protections

By John Kaempf, Attorney at Law

 

In early 2019, in King v. Warner Pacific College, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that, under an Oregon statute, a Christian school can expressly discriminate against a job applicant on the basis of their religion, and can prefer applicants who are Christian.  State statutes like these should be kept in mind because they supplement the First Amendment Constitutional right of Christian schools to freely exercise their religion in the employment process.

In February, 2019, the Oregon Court of Appeals decided King v. Warner Pacific College.  The plaintiff in that case is “of the Hebrew faith.”  He sued the defendant, a Christian College, after he unsuccessfully applied to be an adjunct psychology professor.  The College has a written policy requiring “each employee to affirm a personal faith in Jesus Christ.”  Plaintiff refused to do that.  Also, The College intends that “a Christian worldview be integrated into all academic programs.”  So, its president refused to hire plaintiff.  He sued, alleging this violates Oregon statutes prohibiting employment discrimination based on religion.  But the trial court dismissed the case because of Oregon Revised Statutes 659A.006(4). It states that “it is not an unlawful employment practice for a bona fide church or other religious institution to prefer an employee, or an applicant for employment, of one religious sect or persuasion over another.”  The court confirmed that this statute “permits religious organizations to discriminate on the basis of religion in employment within their own organizations.”  The court also held that under it, “a religious organization may simply choose not to hire as a means of exercising its preference.  Accordingly, the College could lawfully ‘prefer’ not to hire a non-Christian applicant.”  

The Oregon Court of Appeals, not a conservative court, affirmed the dismissal of the case.  It affirmed the ruling that the above statute “protects the College’s decision not to hire plaintiff, a non-Christian.”  The parties “agreed that the College discriminated against plaintiff on the basis of religion, but they dispute whether that discrimination was permitted” under Oregon’s statutes.   The court held that it is permitted.  It also stated that its decision “involves judicial self-restraint rooted in an express legislative respect for a religious perspective.  That self-restraint cautions against second-guessing the school’s well-documented decision to teach a subject from a religious perspective.”  Because the case was resolved solely on statutory grounds, the Court stated that it was not deciding the case based on the constitutional right to freely exercise religion.

So, there are three important lessons for Christian schools from the King case.  First, document that following the Christian faith is a requirement for all employees, including in the school’s mission statement and employee manual.  Second, consult the employment discrimination statutes of the state where your school is located.  They may contain additional protections for your school, like Oregon’s statutes, not provided in federal law.  Third, consult the religious freedom protections in both the U.S. Constitution and the constitution of your state, which may offer additional protections beyond statutes.                   

John Kaempf is a trial attorney who has been honored as one of “America’s Top 100 Attorneys” and one of the “Best Lawyers in America.”  For 27 years, he has defended lawsuits against Christian schools and churches nationwide.  This includes defending child sex abuse and employment cases.  His website is Kaempflawfirm.com.  His direct number is (503) 224-5006.

 

LLU 29.3

Notice: This article is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It has been provided to member schools with the understanding that ACSI is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, tax, or other professional services. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought. Laws vary by jurisdiction, and the specific application of laws to particular facts requires the advice of an attorney.

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