Religious liberty protects Christian college from sex discrimination claim, attorneys say

Religious liberty protects Christian college from sex discrimination claim, attorneys say

An evangelical college in Chicago has asked the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to toss a federal discrimination lawsuit filed by a former instructor who disagreed with the school’s doctrinal position that ordained ministry is limited to males.

Janay E. Garrick was on the faculty of Moody Bible Institute from December 2014 until April 2017, court documents indicate. Her job involved teaching communications and writing classes, according to a filing.

She was required to annually sign an affirmation of the school’s doctrines, which included a doctrine called “complementarianism,” which says men and women have different, but complementary, roles and that men only can serve as ordained clergy.

An appeals brief filed Monday by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP said the instructor “began advocating against Moody’s complementarian beliefs” roughly a year after she was hired, despite the annual doctrinal affirmation she had signed. 

In April 2017, a letter from a school vice president informed Ms. Garrick her teaching contract would not be renewed because her position on women in ministry “is different from that” of the school.

Ms. Garrick first filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging “unlawful retaliation” and sexual and religious discrimination. She then sued the school in 2018, with a first amended complaint one year later adding claims for religious and gender discrimination, retaliation and a “hostile work environment” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A federal district court dismissed those claims on the grounds of an “‘overarching’ principle of church autonomy,” which allows churches to define their own doctrines and run their institutions without governmental interference.

A subsequent second amended complaint won favor with the district court, which said Ms. Garrick’s sex discrimination complaint could proceed without requiring a ruling on Moody’s religious doctrines. That decision is part of the latest appeal, according to court filings.

Daniel Blomberg, a senior counsel at Becket, said this case should be an easy one for Moody to win a favorable decision.

“Every faculty member at Moody was expected to share the core religious beliefs of the ministry,” Mr. Blomberg said in a telephone interview. “This isn’t just a liberal arts college that’s religious. It’s a school that exists to prepare students for ministry.”

Because of that, he said, Ms. Garrick’s dissent from the school’s position on women’s ordination meant “she wasn’t a good fit” for the institution.

Mr. Blomberg said the instructor acknowledged this was a dispute over beliefs.

“Ms. Garrick, in her statement attached to the complaint that says ‘under penalty of perjury,’ [states] ‘I was fired because I was the wrong kind of Christian’” for Moody, he said, “And that puts religion front and center, that makes it the heart of the case.”

The Becket attorney said that while there can be spirited debate in church circles over the role of women, religious colleges must have the right to determine their doctrines and hiring practices.

“You can just look all around the country and people are disagreeing on questions about religious leadership and gender roles in the ministry,” Mr. Blomberg said. “The issue is when you try to employ the federal courts to get leverage in those disputes. That’s what the problem is.”

He said oral arguments in the case should be heard either this winter or in the early part of 2024.

Ms. Garrick did not respond to several requests for comment from The Washington Times.

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