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Discrimination at religious organizations

If an employee is fired for certain unlawful reasons, he or she may have grounds to file a wrongful termination claim. People should understand, however, that these cases are rarely as straightforward as they may seem.

For example, recently a woman filed a lawsuit claiming she was illegally fired from her job at a Christian university. She says that she was fired for having a child out of wedlock and that the firing was discriminatory, as state and federal laws are in place to protect workers from being discriminated against based on factors like marital status, gender and pregnancy. However, because she worked at a religious organization, there are certain factors that have come into play.

Reports indicate that the woman was fired after disclosing the fact that she was pregnant. She is not married to the father, though they have been in a committed relationship for several years. The woman said she was instructed to either break up with the father or get married. When she did neither, the school fired her stating that her lifestyle was in conflict with the school's values.

In accordance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers with 15 or more employees are prohibited from making employment decisions based on a person's religion and/or sex. However, there are exceptions when it comes to religious organizations.

In this case, for instance, the school may claim that it has in place a religious code of conduct that the woman was in violation of as a way to justify their decision. In some situations, this can be successful. But the codes must be uniformly enforced; they cannot be discriminatory.

The woman says that the school employs men who are unmarried fathers but no such action has been taken against them. Because of this, she is arguing that she was the victim of discrimination based on her gender, marital status and pregnancy.

It will be interesting to see how this case is resolved, as it could impact similar situations right here in Fort Lauderdale. In the meantime, it should serve as a crucial reminder to employers and employees across Florida that wrongful termination claims can often involve very specific details that can complicate matters.

Source: OPB, "Lawsuit Alleges Professor Was Fired For Being Pregnant," Julie Sabatier, Aug. 12, 2015

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