Federal law prohibits various discriminatory acts by employers, such as discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or childbirth, but its protections have limitations. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only applies to employers with fifteen or more employees. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b). It also does not apply to religious organizations with regard to “the employment of individuals of a particular religion.” Id. at § 2000e-1(a). The statute does not provide guidance on how to determine whether an employer is a religious organization or not. A number of for-profit businesses, rather than churches or other expressly religious organizations, have claimed religious exemptions in recent years. A proposed rule published by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) could expand the definition of “religious organization.” This can be an issue for New York City pregnancy discrimination attorneys when an employer claims a religious exemption from antidiscrimination laws.
Title VII prohibits pregnancy discrimination, which includes “pregnancy, childbirth, [and] related medical conditions,” as a type of sex discrimination. Id. at § 2000e(k). In 1965, the president issued Executive Order (EO) 11246, which expanded the requirements of Title VII to all federal contractors, regardless of their number of employees. “Religious entities,” however, are exempt on the same basis as the exemption from Title VII. 41 C.F.R. § 60-1.5(a)(5). This means that, for example, an expressly Christian organization may refuse to hire individuals who are not Christian for certain positions. A similar exemption applies to religious schools. See id. at § 60-1.5(a)(6).
The “ministerial exception” provides another exemption from antidiscrimination laws for religious organizations. It states that religious organizations are not bound by antidiscrimination laws with regard to “ministers.” For example, a church can refuse to hire a person as a priest or pastor who is not a part of that church’s religion. Recent court decisions, however, seem to have expanded the definition of “minister.” In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of a teacher’s disability discrimination lawsuit, finding that her position with the school was “ministerial.” The Second Circuit recently affirmed that the ministerial exception barred a former Catholic school principal’s sex discrimination lawsuit. Another court, however, found that the exception does not apply in a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought by a college professor.
The DOL’s proposed rule would only affect government contractors, but it could be indicative of other trends in employment law. The DOL, for example, cites Hosanna-Tabor and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. (2014), which ruled in favor of a for-profit corporation claiming an exemption from a federal statute under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The new rule would add a new subsection to 41 C.F.R. § 60-1.5 requiring an interpretation of the exemption provisions that gives “broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the United States Constitution and law.” 84 Fed. Reg. 41677, 41691 (Aug. 15, 2019).
The skilled and experienced New York City pregnancy discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of employees, former employees, and job applicants, representing them in claims under federal, state, and municipal law. Please contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team.