California court rules for religious university faced with discrimination suit

Monday, April 5, 1999

A private religious university in California cannot be told by the state how to hire and fire its chaplains, a state appeals court has ruled.

In 1994 Chapman University, a large private university in Orange County with ties to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was sued by Shaunie Eminger Schmoll, the school’s chaplain. Schmoll argued in her lawsuit that the school diminished her duties in violation of the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. Specifically, Schmoll claimed that her full-time position was cut back to part-time after she informed administrators of student complaints of sexual harassment by two faculty members. After her hours were cut, Schmoll left the university.

Lawyers and officials for Chapman University responded to the lawsuit by arguing that the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment bar civil court review of an employment dispute between a religious organization and its ministerial employee. Moreover, the university maintained that Schmoll’s hours were cut because of budgetary reasons.

The 4th District Court of Appeal in California issued an opinion on March 30 in support of Chapman University. The appeals court upheld a lower court decision that found the university was constitutionally protected against state court review of its employment actions toward Schmoll.

“It is irrelevant whether the actions involve hiring, firing or discipline or simply changes the terms and conditions of the employment,” Judge Sheila Sonenshine wrote for the appeals court. “The rule is about as absolute as a rule of law can be: The First Amendment guarantees to a religious institution the right to decide matters affecting its ministers’ employment, free from the scrutiny and second-guessing of the civil courts.”

The appeals court cited federal case law that has established a conventional distinction between clergy and non-clergy employees of religious institutions. The religious-liberty clauses have allowed religious institutions to ignore state and federal anti-discrimination laws and fire or demote ministerial employees on the basis of race and gender, as well as for other discriminatory reasons.

In its 1972 ruling in McClure v. Salvation Army, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a discrimination claim against the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army had terminated the commission of a minister, who then filed a federal civil rights suit alleging gender-based discrimination. The court in McClure concluded that “Congress never intended federal civil rights legislation to regulate the employment relationship between church and minister.” The 5th Circuit, moreover, said that the theory also applied “to church-related institutions which have a substantial religious character,” such as the Salvation Army.

Sonenshine also said that despite the noble governmental interests in enforcing the state’s fair-employment law, doing so would unconstitutionally foster too much entanglement with religion. She wrote that the fair-employment law was created by the Legislature’s recognition “that the practice of denying employment opportunity and discriminating in the terms of employment for [any of the statutorily prohibited] reasons foments domestic strife and unrest, deprives that state of the fullest utilization of its capacities for development and advance, and substantially and adversely affects the interest” of employees, employers and the public.

“We would have to inquire into the good faith of the university’s reasons for cutting back Schmoll’s hours and adjudge the legitimacy of the church-affiliated institution’s own perception of its ministerial needs,” Sonenshine wrote. “Such a review is constitutionally forbidden.”

Schmoll’s attorney told the Los Angeles Times that the appeals court decision was “one of the grossest violations of equal protection under the law,” and that she would ask the California Supreme Court to reverse the ruling.