Kennedy v. St. Joseph’s Ministries, Inc., No. 10-1792

Decided: Sept. 14, 2011

Villa St. Catherine, Inc., a tax-exempt religious organization, operates a nursing-care facility in Emmitsburg, Maryland. St. Catherine is maintained in accordance with the principles of the Roman Catholic Church. St. Catherine employed Lori Kennedy, a member of the Church of the Brethren, from 1994 to 2007 as a geriatric nursing assistant. As a matter of religious principle, Kennedy wears modest attire that includes long dresses and skirts, and a cover for her hair. During Kennedy’s employment, the Assistant Director of Nursing Services informed Kennedy that her attire was inappropriate for a Catholic facility and that it made residents and their family members feel uncomfortable. Kennedy responded that her clothing was a function of her religious beliefs and that she would not change it. Kennedy was terminated in May 2007.

Kennedy filed a complaint under Title VII against St. Catherine, alleging that it engaged in religious discrimination and retaliation against her. St. Catherine moved for summary judgment, contending it was exempt from Title VII’s reach as to claims of religious discrimination under the plain language of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1(a), the religious organization exemption. The district court agreed that Kennedy’s discriminatory discharge claim was barred, but concluded that her religious harassment and retaliation claims were cognizable under Title VII. Noting the potential broad-reaching effect of the district court’s ruling, St. Catherine filed a request for an interlocutory appeal, which the district court granted. The Fourth Circuit agreed with St. Catherine that the plain language of § 2000e-1(a) makes clear that Title VII does not apply to claims for religious harassment and retaliation against religious organizations, and reversed the district court’s decision.

The Fourth Circuit interpreted the language of the religious organization exemption to bar claims against religious organizations for discharge, harassment, and retaliation, by noting that Congress exempted religious organizations from the entire subchapter of Title VII with respect to “employment” of persons of a “particular religion.” The exemption reflected a policy decision by Congress that the rights of religious organizations to be free from government intervention outweigh the government interest in eliminating religious discrimination by religious organizations.

The court also noted that it had authority to hear the interlocutory appeal because the district court’s order “involves a controlling question of law as to which there is a substantial ground for difference of opinion” and “immediate appeal . . . may materially advance the ultimate termination of litigation,” as required in 42 U.S.C. § 1292(b). Further, the facts of the case are undisputed, and remanding a case that lacks any substantial merit for further proceedings would waste judicial resources.

Full Opinion

-Sara I. Salehi

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