Saturday, January 7, 2012

Teacher Can’t Sue Church School for FEHA Violations

 A S A P ® 
A Timely Analysis of Legal Developments 
Littler Mendelson, P.C. • • 1.888.littler • 
©2011 Littler Mendelson, P.C. All rights reserved. 
December 2011 

Teacher Can’t Sue Church School for FEHA Violations 
By Helene Wasserman

A California Court of Appeal has ruled that a religious school teacher who was living “out of wedlock” with her boyfriend as they raised their child cannot state a claim against the church for wrongful termination based upon marital status discrimination. Henry v. Red Hill Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tustin, No. G044556 (Fourth Dist., Div. Three Dec. 9, 2011). 

The plaintiff taught preschool at the church school from August 2002 until her termination in May 2009. During that time, in addition to teaching preschool, she also became the Director of the preschool. Each year, she signed a document setting forth the professional expectations for teachers, which included the expectation to serve as “a Christian role model” for the students and their parents, “both in and out of school.” Indeed, when giving her weekly tour of the preschool to prospective parents, she emphasized the “Christian-based, Bible-based values of the school.” As part of the curriculum, plaintiff taught religion to the preschoolers and, once a week, attended chapel with her class. 

When the plaintiff applied for the position, she was married. She subsequently divorced. Later during her employment, she gave birth to a child fathered by her boyfriend. Prior to giving birth, the plaintiff and her boyfriend were living together, but she did not know whether the principal of the school was aware of that fact. After parents learned of and expressed disapproval over the plaintiff’s “living situation,” the school principal met with the plaintiff and asked whether she intended to marry her boyfriend. She indicated that she did, but was not sure when. Ultimately, the school terminated the plaintiff’s employment “for living with her boyfriend and raising their son together without being married.” 

The focus was the living arrangement. The plaintiff sued the church alleging that her termination was wrongfully based on her marital status, in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), Title VII, and the California Constitution. The trial court ordered the trial bifurcated so that the church presented its defenses first. After trial, the court ruled in favor of the church, finding that the church is a religious institution and that the plaintiff’s employment was terminated because she violated a church precept. 

The appellate court affirmed. Preliminarily, the court addressed whether the church is an employer under the FEHA. The FEHA expressly excludes nonprofit religious associations from the definition 

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