Court strikes down statute on faith-based hiring

Montgomery law barred linking jobs to religion

April 13, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The state's highest court struck down yesterday a Montgomery County measure that barred religious institutions from religious discrimination in hiring for jobs in which faith plays little or no role.

The unanimous Court of Appeals ruling means that, from the minister to the floor mopper, religious institutions in the county can restrict hiring to persons of a particular faith.

"Religious organizations can take out of this that religious organizations have autonomy in hiring - they are free to make faith-based decisions in hiring and firing," said Craig L. Parshall, attorney for the church-affiliated Montrose Christian School in Rockville, which won the case. He said he thought that the decision was perhaps the first in which a state's highest court ruled on federal First Amendment grounds on this issue.

The case dates to 1996 when, after a change in leadership, the school fired two office workers, one cafeteria worker and one teacher's aide who were not church members.

Both sides said their religious freedom was under assault - the school said the county law attacked its freedom of religion, while the fired workers said their worship rights were violated.

Religious institutions had watched the case, concerned that if the nearly 30-year-old Montgomery County law passed muster, other counties would switch to its wording and away from their blanket exemption from the religion provision in equal employment laws.

Originally, Montgomery County's law created a broad exemption and then limited it to hiring workers "to perform purely religious functions." But the court said that because no job is purely religious, no exemption was possible, because it runs counter to religious freedom under the First Amendment.

"Even ministers, pastors, priests, rabbis and other theological heads of religious organizations occasionally perform functions which would not ordinarily be characterized as `religious,'" Judge John C. Eldridge wrote.

County attorney Charles W. Thompson Jr. and Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area and attorney for the fired school workers, have not decided whether to appeal.

Spitzer and Montgomery County officials urged the court to take a different view, one that Spitzer called "sensible." They said the exemption was to cover positions with religious significance, while jobs in which faith did not matter should be open to people of any faith.

Religious institutions would decide which jobs fell into which category, though courts might be asked to decide whether the religious importance of a job was in dispute, they said.

Courts are loath get enmeshed in religious matters, said David Bogen, University of Maryland School of Law professor.

"It is an enormously difficult issue that nobody in their right mind wants to get into," he said.

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