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Religious exemptions from Title VII LGBTQ rules vary among courts

Western District of Washington courthouse

SEATTLE (BP) – Christian companies have seen conflicting legal decisions about religious exemptions from Title VII LGBTQ rules after the U.S. Supreme Court said in 2020 that the statute prohibits bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Most recently, a Washington state district court said Nov. 28 that World Vision erred in rescinding an employment offer to an applicant after learning she was a lesbian in a same-sex marriage.

Months earlier on June 20, a Fifth Circuit appeals court granted exemptions to Texas plaintiffs Braidwood Management, a Christian-owned wellness center, and Bear Creek Bible Church, allowing them to reject applicants and employees who don’t wear clothes conforming to their biological gender, or those who exhibit gender-nonconforming behavior such as using bathrooms assigned to the opposite biological gender. The case was Braidwood Management v. the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The court rulings are among several that have impacted religious employers after the U.S. Supreme Court left certain aspects of religious liberty in limbo in Bostock v. Clayton County, ruling that protections from “sex” discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 include “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.”

The High Court acknowledged concern for employers’ religious freedom, pointing out religious exemptions already in place under Title VII, and other protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). “But how these doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII,” the court wrote, “are questions for future cases too.”

Conflicting court decisions are a “predictable result” of the Bostock ruling, said Miles Mullin, vice president and chief of staff of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

“As the ERLC has long advocated, churches, religious institutions, parachurch groups, and faith-based employers should be able to hire employees whose faith and practice aligns with their deeply-held beliefs without fear of retribution from the state,” Mullin told Baptist Press.

“Since the state is not competent to determine or define ministry for a particular religious group, that ability should not be limited to those who technically serve as ministers, but should apply to any position in an organization,” Mullin said. “Neither should their ability to do so be dependent on an exemption. It should be guaranteed.”

Mullin expressed hope that the Supreme Court issues a ruling “that will protect those vital First Amendment rights.”

In ruling against World Vision, Judge James Robart for the Western District of Washington ruled the ministry violated Title VII when it rescinded its offer to employ Aubry McMahon as a customer service representative. Initially, the court ruled in World Vision’s favor, but reversed its decision after McMahon asked the court to reconsider.

Among World Vision’s defenses was Braidwood Management v. EEOC.

But Robart rejected the argument, along with all other World Vision offered.

“Because World Vision’s remaining affirmative defenses – the religious organization exemptions, the ministerial exception, the BFOQ (bona fide occupational qualification) defense, freedom of expression, and freedom of association – fail as a matter of law,” Robart wrote, “World Vision is liable for sex and sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII and WLAD (Washington Law Against Discrimination), as well as marital status discrimination under WLAD.”

The ruling allows the case to proceed to trial in view of appropriate relief for McMahon, Robart wrote.

In Braidwood v. EEOC, the Fifth Circuit upheld a lower court ruling favoring Braidwood and Bear Creek, but denied their class-action status. Braidwood is exempt from Title VII because compliance would “substantially burden” its “religious beliefs about homosexual and transgender conduct,” the court wrote, but separated Bear Creek into a “church-type employers’ class,” Ogletree Deakins employment law firm wrote in analyzing the ruling.

“On its face, the Braidwood ruling means private, religious employers within the Fifth Circuit, that sincerely believe all people should be heterosexual …,” Ogletree Deakins wrote, “can enforce anti-LGBTQ+ policies without violating Title VII, unless or until the EEOC can articulate a compelling reason why Title VII’s protections trump the employers’ sincerely held beliefs, as required by the RFRA.”