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Fired New Jersey Catholic School Counselor Allowed to Continue Pursuit of Sexual Orientation Discrimination Case

catholic high schoolA recent case from Paramus, reported by northjersey.com, provides some helpful insight on how an employee may still be entitled to pursue her rights even in what might appear to be challenging conditions. A guidance counselor and basketball coach sued her former employer for sexual orientation discrimination. Even though the employer in this case was a Catholic school, the trial court and the Appellate Division both ruled that the religion exception did not automatically prevent this employee from pursuing her discrimination case.

The facts of the case start out sounding like an All-American success story. An alumna of a northern New Jersey high school secured a job as an assistant girls’ basketball coach at her alma mater. The coach rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the school’s head basketball coach and dean of guidance.

Then, according to the employee’s lawsuit, a family quarrel led an in-law to send pictures of the coach’s wedding to school authorities. The school was a Catholic one, and the coach’s marriage was to a woman, so the school fired her.

The coach sued the school and the archdiocese for impermissible sexual orientation discrimination. New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination is clear that, in addition to age, race, national origin, and sex (among other things), employers in this state cannot discriminate based upon sexual orientation, marital/domestic partnership status, or gender identity.

Due to the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause, there are certain situations in which a religious school is exempt from liability under the NJLAD. For example, any church’s decisions regarding its hiring or firing of ministerial employees is outside the coverage of anti-discrimination laws. A lay teacher at a religious school, however, may not qualify as a “minister” of the church and therefore may be entitled to the full protection of the provisions of the NJLAD.

Despite efforts by the employer, in both the trial court and the appeals court, the coach’s lawsuit has been allowed to proceed. Simply because an employer is religious and alleges that a particular employee is employed in a ministerial capacity and that the dispute between employer and employee is a religious one does not automatically entitle the employer to the religious entity exception and prevent the employee from pursuing a sexual orientation discrimination case.

There were at least two things, according to this trial judge, that required further discovery before the case could be resolved. “This court is to examine whether the plaintiff served in a ministerial capacity and evaluate whether the dispute is secular or ecclesiastical.” The mere fact that the church authorities asserted that the disagreement was religious in nature was, without additional evidence, not enough to decide the issue.

In cases like this teacher’s, another thing that can potentially strengthen a plaintiff’s position is the employer’s inconsistent application of its rules. If, for example, the school in this case knew of other employees who were in violation of the church’s teachings on morality issues (like engaging in extramarital sexual affairs or having children out of wedlock), and the employer did nothing to those employees, that could also aid the employee’s argument.

For advice and advocacy upon which you can rely when it comes to sexual orientation discrimination and other workplace discrimination, contact the New Jersey sexual orientation discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Our attorneys are seasoned and determined professionals who have many decades of combined experience working to represent the interests of workers. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation with one of our skilled and experienced attorneys.

More blog posts:

Workplace Discrimination Against LGBT People and New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, March 22, 2017

NJ Supreme Court: Employers Cannot Force Employees to Accept Shortened Period for Pursuing Discrimination Claims, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, March 8, 2017

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