Title VII’s Religious Entity Exemption at Issue Before 4th Circuit CoA

In Kennedy v. St. Joseph’s Ministries, Inc., Villa St. Catherine is a tax-exempt religious organization that operates a nursing care facility under the direction of the Daughters of Charity, a religious order within the Roman Catholic Church, and maintains its facility in accordance with Catholic principles by engaging in numerous religious exercises.  Lori Kennedy was a geriatric nursing assistant there from 1994 to 2007.  Kennedy is a member of the Church of the Brethren and, following her religion, wore “modest garb that included long dresses/skirts and a cover for her hair.”  At some point Kennedy was informed that her attire was inappropriate for a Catholic facility and that it made residents and their family members feel uncomfortable, though it is unclear how exactly.  When Kennedy refused to change her dress, she was terminated.  Kennedy brought suit under Title VII for unlawful discharge, harassment, and retaliation.  The district court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss with respect to the harassment and retaliation claims, but certified the order for an interlocutory appeal.

42 U.S.C. § 2000e-l(a) is an exemption to Title VII for religious entities “with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion.”  The decision to employ individuals “of a particular religion” under § 2000e-l(a) and § 2000e-2(e)(2) has been interpreted to include the decision to terminate an employee whose conduct or religious beliefs are inconsistent with those of its employer.  However, the provision does not exempt religious organizations from Title VII’s provisions barring discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or national origin.  The majority held that in addition to hiring and firing decisions, the exemption applied to all aspects of employment, including harassment and retaliation.  Thus, all of Kennedy’s Title VII claims had to be dismissed.  In dissent, Judge King argued that the interlocutory appeal should not have been allowed.  The merits of the Court’s decision, though, are harder to argue with.