It was not wrongful termination for Tustin's Red Hill Lutheran Church & School to fire a preschool teacher for living out of wedlock with her boyfriend and raising their child, the state appellate court in Santa Ana has ruled. Sara Henry had sued the church on grounds that her firing in May 2009 violated California's Fair Employment and Housing Act as well as public policy expressed in the FEHA, the state constitution and Title
VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But, in its Sara Henry vs. Red Hill Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tustin ruling published Friday, a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal found that state law exempts religious organizations from the FEHA, so the church could not violate it.
Henry was married when she began teaching preschool at the private church school in August 2002. She subsequently divorced and gave birth in June 2007 to a child fathered by her boyfriend. According to court documents, she informed church representatives while she was pregnant that she intended to get married but “was not ready to do so just yet.”
The school's principal overheard a group of parents expressing disappointment in Henry's living situation at the end of 2008. The school terminated her employment the following spring on grounds her living arrangement was “contrary to the religious beliefs of the church and school.” Henry then sued, a lower court dismissed the case, and Henry appealed.
While the FEHA “prohibits an 'employer' from engaging in acts of improper discrimination,” the law “expressly excludes religious associations or corporations from the definition of employer,” according to the three-judge appellate panel. “Evidence presented at the trial demonstrated that the church is a religious corporation not organized for private profit. In other words, termination of Henry's employment did not violate the FEHA.”
Meanwhile, the court held that Henry did not cite in her opening brief any constitutional provision or statue other than the FEHA as a source of a public policy being violated by her firing. Had Henry and her boyfriend married, or if one of them moved out of their shared residence, the church would have been satisfied and Henry would have kept her job, the court noted. What the church “could not allow,” the judges said, was to have Henry “continue living in what it considered a sinful manner.”
Wait . . . what? The church would have been cool with a mother and child being ripped apart from the child's fathert? Hey, Murphy Brown, we've found you a congregation.