Universal Life Church

A gavel with scale and book on table

Some court decisions in Europe and the United States have given weight to claims of religious "freedom" for religious organizations. This allows these organizations to follow their principles and doctrines in employment decisions, even where it means firing or penalizing workers for things they do while off duty, in their private lives. Additionally, some laws in U.S. states may impact what rights and remedies employees of religious organizations have on the job.

Employees who believe they understand the general right to privacy that an employee enjoys in their personal life may be very surprised that it is quite different in places that are run by a religious organization, such as:

  • Universities or schools
  • Charitable or service groups
  • Churches and outreach organizations

Courts and legislators seem intent on carving out exceptions for such work places that come under the purview of a religious group's control so that they need not follow state and federal laws against discrimination based on race, religion and gender.

Similarly in Europe, courts have ruled that organizations that are religious, or controlled by a religious group, can interfere in their employees' lives in significant ways. From whether they are allowed to marry or divorce to their involvement in various social groups, some European courts seem to be willing to allow religious employers to dictate many aspects of the lives of their workers.

Both Sides of the Atlantic

The European Court of Human Rights several years ago disappointed many when it rejected the case of a former teacher and retired priest in Spain who was laid off at the direction of the church because he married and participated in the movement to allow married priests. In another closely watched case before the ECHR, a religion teacher in Croatia was let go from his job when he divorced and entered a second, civil marriage. A conservative group submitted arguments in favor of the church's position, arguing that religious bodies have a right to demand "increased loyalty" from people under their authority (in excess of the normal degree of loyalty that an employee owes to an employer).

Indiana Senate Passes Bill to Allow Religious Organizations to Discriminate in Hiring

In the U.S., another state inches closer to a law that specifically allows religious groups and organizations greater ability to discriminate in employment practices based on religion. The Indiana Senate passed a bill by a vote of 39-11 that would allow religious organizations that contract with the state freedom to make hiring decisions based on religious factors. The law would also guarantee businesses the ability to require all applicants and employees "to conform to the religious tenants of the organization."

Senator Karen Tallian, one of the ten Democratic senators in the state senate to vote against the bill (joined by a single Republican who stepped out of line to vote against it), enquired, "How many tenants must you conform to? Do you have to go to church every Sunday?"

The bill, which now goes to the Indiana House of Representatives for consideration, covers those contracts with Indiana's state government or agencies "with a religious corporation, an association, an educational institution, or a society."

Religious Rights to Discriminate?

As major religious organizations and conservative politicians align with some court decisions that seem to allow churches and faith organizations to discriminate against those who are not part of their faith, some question whether the trend to carve out exceptions to laws for religions that have entered the public sphere by operating institutions of education or other businesses is a laudable one or not. Seeing the world as being made up of individuals who share more similarities than differences, it seems that establishing a part of the employment market that permits tests of religious loyalty is a step back to a time when religions wielded immense power over institutions of state and economy alike. For all those who see more connections than separation among all beings of the universe, inclusion rather than exclusion should be the policy in all areas of life.

Category: Freedom of Religion Citizens Rights freedom from religion

federal law state law politics Discrimination

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