VOLUME 3, ISSUE 344 | October 28 - November 3, 2004
A Minnesota appeals court upheld the dismissal of a lesbian employee by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, finding that the organization qualified for a religious exemption from the state’s statutory ban on sexual orientation discrimination.
The unanimous October 19 ruling affirmed a decision by a Minneapolis trial court.
As a result, a closeted 30-year employee who slipped up once by kissing another woman in the company parking lot has no legal recourse.
Sara Thorson, who began working in the mailroom for Graham’s organization in 1971, never did work related to “development or production of evangelical media,” according to Judge Wilhelmina Wright’s opinion for the court. In her most recent position, Thorson served as the company’s bulk-mail services coordinator.
In February 2002, two employees reported seeing her kiss another woman in the parking lot. When two supervisors confronted her with this report, she acknowledged that she is a lesbian. A supervisor told her that if she did not “reconsider” her “lifestyle,” she would be terminated. Thorson was placed on leave to contemplate her situation.
The following month, she sent a letter to her supervisor, stating that she felt her sexual orientation did not affect her ability to do the job and asked to continue working. Thorson received no response, but was fired in June.
Minnesota’s employment discrimination statute protects against “sexual orientation” discrimination, but also states that particular ban does not apply to a religious organization’s employment policies. However, the statute reads that the exemption “does not apply to secular business activities engaged in by the religious association the conduct of which is unrelated to the religious and educational purposes for which it is organized.”
The Graham Association argued that it was entitled to the exemption, because the mailroom was an integral part of its operations, which were entirely evangelical in its focus. Thorson argued that she was not performing any religious or educational functions, just seeing that the mail was processed properly, so the religious exemption protecting Graham should not apply in her case.
Thorson’s argument was patterned on successful arguments that have been made on behalf of clerical, administrative and maintenance employees under religious discrimination provisions of the federal Civil Rights Act, but it was unsuccessful under the Minnesota law.
The court found that the phrase “secular business activities” was ambiguous enough to suggest different meanings, so that the legislative history of the discrimination statute required scrutiny. The legislative history, made up of statements by the sponsors of the amendment that added sexual orientation to the protected categories under the law in 1993, supported Graham’s argument.
State Rep. Ron Abrams, the law’s sponsor, had illustrated the breadth of the religious exemption by stating that a secretary, choir director or janitor at a church who was terminated on the basis of his or her sexual orientation would not be protected by the law.
“What the intention here is, is to give the broadest possible recognition and scope to the fundamental American value of separation of church and state,” Abrams said.
State Sen. Allen Spear, who was also a sponsor and is gay, confirmed Abrams’ interpretation, stating that a “commercial secular business enterprise” owned or operated by a church would be subject to the non-discrimination requirement, but nobody directly employed by the religious organization would be covered.
“All the hiring, the renting of facilities, that are done by the church or the religious organizations would be exempt under this amendment,” Spear had said.
Responding to a question from another legislator, Spear said, “It will allow them to hire as they choose without regard to the restrictions of this bill for everyone that they hire.”
Spear explained that the amendment’s sponsors no longer aimed to incorporate the specific language of the federal Civil Rights Act. “By removing that language we make it clear that the exemption includes everybody.”
The die was cast, then, by the legislators whose goals was to add sexual orientation discrimination protection to the rights enjoyed by Minnesotans. Even though Thorson’s job duties did not involve the religious mission of the Graham organization, it was enough that she worked in the mailroom and that the association carries on evangelical religious functions.
It is likely that the unusually broad religious exemption was part of the political price paid to win enactment of the gay civil rights bill, but ultimately Thorson and other long-time secular employees of religious organizations are the sacrificial lambs for such legislative horse-trading