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Court Rules No Freedom Of Religion Exemption To Title VII

The state of South Carolina is situated under the jurisdiction of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, along with North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. However, it is worth paying attention to the decisions that come out of the other circuits, because if too many disagree on one particular issue, the Supreme Court will usually feel bound to intervene. This is known as a circuit split. Over the past year or two, cases from circuits all over the country have begun to set up a potential question for the Supreme Court to hear after it reconvenes in October, regarding Title VII and an employer’s freedom of religion.

Michigan Case Establishes Unique Precedent

In 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit in the 6th District Court of Appeals on behalf of a transgender woman who was terminated from her job at a Detroit-area funeral home when her superiors learned of her intent to transition. The judge in the Eastern District of Michigan ruled against her case, arguing that the funeral home was entitled to an exception to the prohibition on such discrimination due to its sincerely held religious beliefs. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision, and in doing so, stated that the funeral home’s owner was not entitled to discriminate based on “stereotypical conception[s]” of gender and sex, even if due to sincerely held religious beliefs.

This is a unique ruling, because while there have been past cases which formed the concept of gender identity discrimination as discrimination based on preconceived notions of sex or gender, this is the first ruling of its kind which explicitly states that doing so is not covered by any kind of religious exemption. Previous cases in this line, such as Hively v. Ivy Tech, in which a part-time professor at a university was allegedly denied promotion due to her sexual orientation, have not needed to touch on the religious angle.

Circuit Split Seems Likely

Cases like the one decided by the 6th Circuit have become steadily more common, though mixed results have been obtained in court. The 2nd Circuit ruled in favor of the estate of David Zarda in February 2018, arguing that his sexual orientation was the motivating factor in his dismissal from his New York skydiving agency employer. Lambda Legal recently filed an appeal in the 8th Circuit for Mark Horton, a healthcare salesman who was recruited for a job and then had his offer rescinded upon the business owners’ learning of his homosexuality, leaving him jobless. More and more, the implied religious exemptions in Title VII are being tested by people who generally simply want to work.

The only explicit religious exemptions in Title VII are reserved for religious organizations, who have the right to prefer to hire members of their own religions, but institutions that do this must be “primarily religious” in their “purpose and character.” A Catholic school may choose to hire predominantly Catholics, because they are held to share the values and vision of that particular institution. But a secular school may not hire predominantly Catholics simply because it chooses to do so. Funeral homes, healthcare companies and skydiving companies are not primarily religious entities, and if the view of the 6th Circuit winds up holding sway whenever the question makes it to the Supreme Court, the distinction may not matter.

Seek Experienced Legal Help In Your Case

While South Carolina law remains yet to be tested in this manner, you do have rights if you have been unfairly treated at work. Attorney A. Christopher Potts has experience in many types of discrimination cases and is happy to sit down with you to discuss whether you might have a cause of action.

Contact our Charleston law firm today to set up an appointment.

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