NAICU Washington Update

Firing of Unmarried Christian University Professor Ruled Illegal

March 27, 2017

A federal judge in Oregon has ruled that Northwest Christian University’s firing of a pregnant and unmarried faculty member represented illegal discrimination based on marital status. The ruling rejected the institution’s First Amendment defense, based on the “ministerial exception,” that was recognized by the Supreme Court in the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision.

The faculty member had been employed by the university as assistant professor of exercise science since 2011. In May 2015, she informed her supervisors that she was pregnant with her third child. Senior administrators responded that this was evidence of conduct incompatible with the institution’s core values, and a violation of the university’s expectation that all faculty will “integrate their Christian faith into their jobs.” The faculty member was offered a choice to either marry the baby’s father or stop living with him. Otherwise, she would lose her job. She rejected both choices and was fired.

The most important finding at this point is that the Hosanna-Tabor argument for a ministerial exception was rejected because the judge found that the faculty member’s “title, assistant professor of exercise science, was secular. Second, Plaintiff [the faculty member] did not undergo any specialized religious training before assuming her position. Third, although there is ample evidence plaintiff held herself out as a Christian, there is no evidence that she held herself out as a minister…. There is evidence [she]… performed some important religious functions in her capacity as a professor…. But any religious function was wholly secondary to her secular role: she was not tasked with performing any religious instruction, and she was charged with no religious duties….”

The judge described this as “an unusual employment discrimination case in which the facts are largely undisputed.” All of these rulings were in response to the parties asking for summary judgments about various claims. There are still several unresolved issues which may be decided in a trial in the months ahead.

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