July 15, 2014
by John Kaempf


Religious schools and churches periodically terminate or discipline a teacher or other employee who violated tenets of the religion at issue, such as premarital cohabitation. Employers taking such actions have a complete defense to discrimination claims arising from such decisions based on the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the corresponding provisions of the Oregon Constitution.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides, in part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Article 1, Section 3 of the Oregon Constitution states: “No law shall in any case whatever control the free exercise, and enjoyment of religious opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience.”

In Oregon, pursuant to the “church autonomy doctrine,” an employment discrimination statute cannot “dictate to [a] church how it may worship or who it may hire and fire as its leaders.” Newport Church of the Nazarene v. Hensley, 335 Oregon Supreme Court 1, 14-15 (2002). Moreover, only Oregon statutes that are “neutral toward religion” and have “no purpose to control or interfere with the rights of conscience or with religious opinions” satisfy the religion clauses of the Oregon Constitution, which provide even greater protection to churches and religious schools than the First Amendment. Meltebeke v. BOLI, 322 Oregon Supreme Court 132, 146, 149 (1995).

In National Labor Relations Board v. The Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 US 490, 504 (1979), the U.S. Supreme Court stated: “The church-teacher relationship in a church operated school differs from the employment relationship in a public or other nonreligious school. We see no escape from the conflicts flowing from the *** exercise of jurisdiction over teachers in church-operated schools and the consequent serious First Amendment questions that would follow.”

Therefore, when faced with claims by teachers or other employees who were fired or disciplined due to violating religious doctrine, Oregon churches and religious schools should keep in mind their constitutional right to make these decisions without being second-guessed by secular courts. See also Bryce v. Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Colorado, 289 F3d 648 (10th Circuit 2002) (the plaintiff served as a youth minister for the defendant church and had a civil commitment ceremony with her partner, another female, and the defendants fired her because she violated church doctrine; plaintiff sued, alleging violations of federal anti-discrimination statutes, but the court dismissed the case, holding that the “church autonomy doctrine prohibits civil court review of internal church disputes involving matters of faith, doctrine, church governance, and polity,” and that when “a church makes a personnel decision based on religious doctrine,” the “courts will not intervene”); Parker-Bigback v. St. Labre School, 7 P3d 361 (Montana 2000) (the plaintiff was a counselor employed by the defendant, a Catholic school, and was fired due to living with her boyfriend “contrary to the moral and religious teachings of the Roman Catholic Church”; plaintiff sued and alleged that the firing violated employment discrimination statutes, but the court dismissed the case, holding that no authority established that plaintiff’s conduct “involved a right of such high order that it would overcome the school’s right to freely exercise its religion through its employment practices as guaranteed by the First Amendment,” and that the “case is not about marital status or gender. It is about conduct which [plaintiff] agreed to avoid when she signed her employment agreement with St. Labre School,” and that even “if she was terminated for the reason alleged, we conclude that her rights to be free from discrimination were not involved”).