Church sued by employee who resigned for cohabitating with boyfriend wins in court

Unsplash/Gregory Hayes
Unsplash/Gregory Hayes

An appeals court has ruled that a Wisconsin church daycare employee who left her job over a policy barring unmarried employees from cohabitating was not wrongfully terminated.

Sandra Sandoval sued Capitoland Christian Center Church, Inc., claiming the institution ended her employment because she violated an employment agreement that prohibited workers from cohabitating outside of marriage. Sandoval contends that the Madison-based church discriminated against her due to her marital status.

In a per curiam decision released last Thursday, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals panel —which included judges JoAnne Kloppenburg, Rachel Graham, and Jennifer Nashold — ruled against Sandoval, upholding a prior ruling from the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission. 

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According to the decision, Sandoval signed a “Statement of Affirmation and Agreement,” where she agreed to refrain from “co-habitation with members outside of marriage” as a condition of employment.

Sandoval was hired to cook for the church daycare center in 2014. The fact that she lived with her boyfriend was not brought up until January of the following year.

The panel concluded in part that she was not wrongfully dismissed from the position because the church did not explicitly fire her, noting that the director of the church daycare center had wanted to “work something out” regarding the employee agreement violation.

The director of the church daycare center, Brenda Van Rossum, testified that when she informed Sandoval that Capitoland could not allow its employees to live “with each other outside of marriage,” she replied, “it’s okay, I’ll be done then.” 

Van Rossum reported indicating to Sandoval that she did not want her to resign right away and announced her intention to “touch base” with the Capitoland pastor (Samuel Jake Stauffacher) and “go from there.”

Additionally, she said she encouraged Sandoval to “come back the next day and to not just resign on the spot like that.”

The director of the church daycare center hoped Sandoval could elaborate on her arrangement to determine whether it conflicted with the agreement, but she repeatedly responded to such requests by insisting, “no, that’s okay, I’ll be done.”

“It didn’t seem like she wanted to discuss it,” Van Rossum concluded.

Sandoval deduced based on the conversation that she had already been fired even though she was never explicitly told that. She called in to say she would not be coming into work the day after the discussion and did not show up or call in for the following three days, which was a cause for termination of employment. 

When Sandoval returned to work four days after her conversation with her supervisor to hand in her keycard, she claims she was told, “I could not return to work unless I got married, and if I didn’t, I could not return to work.” 

Based on testimony from Sandoval and her former employer, the panel determined that “Sandoval’s noncompliance with the Agreement was ongoing, [and] Capitoland had not yet imposed any ultimatum on Sandoval.”

Additionally, the judges “affirm the Commission’s finding that Sandoval voluntarily resigned her employment with Capitoland.”

“Sandoval does not develop any argument explaining why she would be entitled to any of the damages she seeks if, as we have concluded, Capitoland did not terminate or constructively discharge her employment,” the panel reasoned. 

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal nonprofit representing Capitoland, celebrated the ruling that reaffirmed the earlier decision against Sandoval.

“Every church has a statement of faith, and it is not only reasonable, but expected for a church to require its employees to agree with and follow its religious beliefs,” asserted ADF Senior Counsel Jeremiah Galus in a statement released Thursday. “We’re pleased the Wisconsin Court of Appeals agreed and that Capitoland Christian Center Church will be free to continue its great work in the Madison community.”

The Madison Equal Opportunities Commission ruled against Sandoval in May 2019, concluding that “she was unable to draw a causal connection between the adverse action and her protected classes (sex, race, and/or national origin).”

Sandoval argued that the commission's determination that she voluntarily resigned her employment was "erroneous" and claimed that the commission was wrong to determine that the church's "no cohabitation provision" doesn't violate the state's Equal Opportunities Ordinance.

"[R]egardless of the merits of Sandoval’s argument that the Agreement’s cohabitation clause violates the Equal Opportunities Ordinance, Sandoval does not argue that she is entitled to relief if she voluntarily resigned her employment," the panel ruled. "During the proceedings before the Commission, Sandoval sought back pay, front pay, and an unspecified amount of damages for emotional distress, but it appears that some if not all of the damages sought by Sandoval may be dependent on proof that she was subjected to an adverse employment action."

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