Many employers feel that the law has gone so far that they cannot fire any employee for anything without risking liability. Not always true. The Fourth District Court of Appeals recently decided that a church can fire an employee for living with her boyfriend and raising their child together out of wedlock.
Henry v. Red Hill Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tustin involved a female employee teaching in the Church’s preschool. Henry was married at the time she applied for the position (2002). She divorced in 2007 and later gave birth to a child fathered by her boyfriend. While pregnant, she told the church that she intended to marry her boyfriend, but was not yet ready to do so.
In 2008, the school’s principal overheard a group of parents talking about the fact that Henry was raising her child and living with her boyfriend out of wedlock. The principal met with Henry and asked her about the situation. She told the principal that she intended to marry her boyfriend, but was not sure when that would happen. She was later terminated expressly for living with her boyfriend and raising their child together out of wedlock, which was inimical to the church’s religious beliefs.
Henry sued claiming her termination violated federal and state law. The Court quickly disposed of these claims finding that both California and federal law exempts religious organizations from its definition of “employer.” The court even rejected Henry’s common law claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy on this basis.
While this decision has no impact on 99% of employers, the fact pattern alone required inclusion in the blog.