A California appeals court has ruled that a Lutheran church had the right to fire its preschool director because she was living with her boyfriend.
The Fourth District Court of Appeals in Santa Ana decided last week that Red Hill Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tustin could legally fire Sara Henry for religious reasons.
According to the opinion given, the court decided that the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) did not apply to Henry’s employment with Red Hill Lutheran because as a religious organization the church had a “ministerial exception.”
“Evidence presented at the trial demonstrated that the church is a religious corporation not organized for private profit,” wrote the court.
“Because the church is not considered an employer for purposes of the FEHA, it is not subject to the FEHA’s prohibitions.”
Henry was fired from her position in May 2009, after Red Hill administrators became aware that she had a child with her boyfriend whom she was living with and had no confirmed plans to marry him.
She first filed suit against Red Hill Lutheran in 2010, but lost the case as Orange County Superior Court Judge Derek W. Hunt ruled that as a religious organization Red Hill Lutheran had the right to terminate her employment due to behavior outside of her employment.
This religious exemption came via Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which says that “it shall not be an unlawful employment practice” for a religious educational institution to hire and employ individuals on the basis of religious belief.
The Fourth District reaffirmed Judge Hunt’s decision.
“[Henry] knew she was to serve as a Christian role model to the students and their parents, both in and out of school,” wrote the court.
“Henry’s employment was terminated for religious reasons for which the church and school are exempt under title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act…”
Red Hill Lutheran Church was established in 1957 and is affiliated with the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC).
Red Hill Lutheran Church of Tustin declined to comment on the matter.