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Bi Choir Director Loses Appeal

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Minn. court won’t examine church’s treatment of “religious” employee

Finding that the Hamline United Methodist Church is immune from charges of sexual orientation discrimination under Minnesota’s Human Rights Act, a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals rejected a discrimination claim brought by the church’s former choir director and organist, Randall M. Egan, who was fired after refusing to apologize for calling a member of the congregation “homophobic.”

Judge David Minge wrote the court’s opinion, released on April 13.

Egan, hired to be the church’s organist and choir director in 1994, was responsible for managing and rehearsing the choir, selecting the music for the regular Sunday services and special services, playing the organ, and supervising the church’s other musical groups, which include a children’s choir and a handbell choir. Egan identifies himself as being bisexual.

Hamline Methodist is a liberal church, which resolved in 1999 to designate itself a “reconciling congregati­on,” one that welcomes and supports members of sexual minorities. The church has adopted a formal non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation as a forbidden ground for discrimination. According to Minge’s opinion, “the process of formally adopting this policy at Hamline Methodist began in 1992 and was protracted and contentious.”

The events leading to Egan’s discharge began in May 2000, when he observed a conversation in the church parking lot between the handbell choir director, Marilyn Wahlstrom, and a member of that choir, Kim Gruetzmacher. They were discussing the congregation’s decision to be a “reconciling congregati­on,” to which Gruetzmacher was opposed. After listening to Gruetzmacher’s statements, Egan, who had walked over to be sociable, commented that he had not been aware that Gruetzmacher “was so homophobic.”

This comment upset Gruetzmacher, who sent a letter to the pastor the next day demanding an apology from Egan, who was told that unless he sent an acceptable letter of apology, he would be discharged. Egan responded that he could not “in good conscience” apologize for supporting the church’s “reconciling policy,” so he was fired.

Egan filed a discrimination claim with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of state law. Minnesota law forbids employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but includes language exempting religious organizations to some extent. The extent of that exemption became a major issue in this case.

The Department of Human Rights decided that Egan’s description of his discharge did not amount to a case of sexual orientation discrimination, and dismissed his charge.Egan then filed his lawsuit, against both the church and Gruetzmacher.

The church immediately filed a motion to dismiss the case against it, on the ground that it was exempt from complying with the statute, based on two provisions in the law. One states that nothing in the statute “prohibits any religious association from… in matters of sexual orientation, taking any action with respect to employment. This clause shall not apply to secular business activities unrelated to the religious and educational purposes for which it is organized.” The other provision states that the anti-discrimination provisions do not apply to “a religious association with respect to qualifications based on religion or sexual orientation, when religion or sexual orientation shall be a bona fide occupational qualification for employment.”

The Ramsey County District Court determined that the church was exempt, and granted its motion, which Egan appealed.

Egan argued that his sexual orientation was not a bona fide occupational qualification. Indeed, he contended, since the church had adopted a non-discrimination policy, it had in effect waived the protection of the exemption by voluntarily subjecting itself to a requirement not to discriminate based on sexual orientation. The church has consistently maintained throughout the case that Egan was not discharged because of his sexual orientation, but rather because of his refusal to apologize for calling a member of the congregation a “homophobe.”

Egan also argued that as the choir director and organist, he was a secular rather than a religious employee.

The latter argument was clearly a loser. It has become well established in employment discrimination law cases involving religious institutions that music directors and church organists are considered part of the ritual leadership, and courts generally hold, even in the absence of a specific statutory exemption, that a religious organization’s constitutional right of free exercise of religion includes freedom from any government intervention in the selection and retention of the ritual leadership.

Turning to Egan’s argument that the church was not exempt from his charges because his sexual orientation was not a bona fide occupational qualification, the court disagreed with Egan’s characterization of the two exemption provisions. The court acknowledged that the two exemption provisions seemed to contradict each other––one broadly exempting religious associations, the other narrowly allowing a church to make sexual orientation a bona fide occupational qualification. However, it found the two reconcilable by reasoning that the legislature might have intended to establish a narrower rule in cases that involve hiring and a broader exemption for other employment policies. Since Egan’s case does not involve a hiring decision, his claim of protection under the bona fide occupational qualification language is not relevant.

Perhaps most significantly, the court found that the church did not “waive” its statutory exemption by adopting a non-discrimination policy. Although there are other Minnesota cases in which courts have recognized that individuals or organizations can “waive” statutory rights, the court found those cases significantly dissimilar from this one. In this case, the statutory exemptions were seen as part of the need to accommodate the federal constitutional protection for free exercise of religion with the state’s desire to address the problems raised by workplace discrimination.

“In balancing the establishment, free exercise and entanglement concepts in a constitutional analysis of freedom of religion,” wrote Minge, “courts generally recognize that churches may decide for themselves matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.”

The court of appeals concluded that the constitutional policy of “avoiding entanglement” by the government in a church’s internal affairs “controls in this case.” Though the Minnesota Human Rights Act represents a legislative decision to protect individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation, it also recognizes that entanglement with religious employees of religious associations is a very delicate problem. The value in preventing such entanglement was seen to outweigh any risks of giving religious organizations any preferred position.

The court rejected Egan’s appeal, without having to consider the merits of his claim.

“In reaching our decision,” wrote Minge, “we note that the debate over sexual orientation in religious bodies is highly contentious and the position of religious organizations on this subject may be revised from time-to-time.”

But the court concluded that the legislature had struck the balance against letting the courts consider sexual orientation discrimination charges against churches by religious employees, regardless of the merits of those claims.

Egan’s legal claim against Gruetzmacher for bringing about his discharge was not addressed in this appeal and presumably continues.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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