Published January 29, 2013
LOS ANGELES – A lawsuit by a Southern California Christian school against two former teachers who refused to provide proof of their faith could pose one of the first court tests of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on religious freedom.
A legal expert said last year's ruling that religious workers can't sue for job discrimination never specified whether that includes teachers at religious schools.
Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks purchased Little Oaks School in 2009, and leaders told employees last year that they would need to provide a statement of faith and a reference from a pastor to renew their contracts.
The two teachers lost their jobs after refusing to provide the documents. After they threatened litigation, school leaders filed their own lawsuit in federal court in Ventura.
James A. Sonne, director of the Religious Liberty Clinic and a lecturer in law at Stanford University Law School, noted that the dispute comes just a year after the high court's ruling in the case of the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., which holds that religious workers can't sue for job discrimination.
The court refused to specify in that ruling what constituted a religious worker, leaving teachers uncertain of their status under the law.
Sonne said the question remains whether teachers are performing "ministerial duties."
"Churches have First Amendment rights to choose their ministers," Sonne said. "The question is how does that apply outside the liturgical setting? The area where that will be played out is in the religious school context."
The school and its owner say their right to hire teachers who share their beliefs is protected by the California Constitution, the U.S. Constitution's right of the free exercise of religion, and civil rights laws.
The school is incorporated as a for-profit entity, but church leaders said the school is operated not as a profit-generating entity but as a spiritual arm of the church. About 130 students in preschool through fifth grade are taught there.
The teachers, Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara, are citing the state's Fair Employment and Housing Act, which prohibits religious discrimination with exemptions that do not include for-profit religious groups.
Sonne said a constitutional ruling under federal law would most likely trump a state provision, which may be the reason the church filed in federal court.
"We're a Christian school," the Rev. Rob McCoy, pastor of the church and headmaster of the school, told the Ventura County Star. "We were coming to the point where we were establishing a Christian curriculum. We wanted to make sure teachers subscribed to that faith."
Serrano, once director of the preschool, had been with the school since 2006. Guevara was hired in 2011.
"They did not believe they should be required to obtain a pastoral reference in order to continue their employment," their attorney, Dawn Coulson, wrote in a letter to church leaders.
The teachers lost their jobs. In the letter from Coulson, they said they were prepared to sue and were asking for $150,000 apiece from the school to settle the case.
Instead of settling, church and school leaders filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, asking for an injunction that would prevent the teachers from filing their lawsuit in a different venue, the newspaper said. They wanted to make sure litigation took place in federal court.
Their suit names not only the two teachers but the law firm that represents them. It alleges the California Fair Employment and Housing Act is unconstitutional when used to restrict a religious school's hiring practices, even if the group is for-profit.