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Court Upholds the Right of Churches to Ask Their Employees to Follow a Code of Conduct

By Sarah Kramer posted on:
May 21, 2019

Churches don’t exist simply to preach the Gospel inside the walls of their buildings. Faith must be lived out. And as any Christian knows, this impacts all areas of your life, not just where you worship on Sundays. So, it makes sense that a church would only hire employees who agree with and abide by its religious beliefs.

Thankfully, the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission recently declared that churches are permitted to hold their employees to this standard.

Capitoland Christian Center is a church, daycare, and school that seeks to serve families in Madison, Wisconsin. It also offers after-school programs and hot meals for children in the community. And it seeks to proclaim the Gospel in everything it does. As such, all of its employees, from the pastor to the cooks, must review the statement of faith and sign a statement of affirmation upon being hired.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

So, when the church found out that one of its employees was living with her boyfriend, it asked her about it. But rather than abide by the religious beliefs she previously said she agreed with, the employee decided to quit her job instead. And it didn’t end there.

The former employee filed a claim against the church, school, and daycare for “marital status discrimination” – a protected class under Madison’s nondiscrimination law.

Under the Constitution, churches have a “ministerial exception,” which gives them wide freedom to make their own staffing decisions without government interference. Non-ministerial positions, however, are more vulnerable to government interference. While churches are permitted to prefer non-ministerial candidates that share the same faith, some argue that conduct should be considered separate from “faith.”

But agreeing to a statement of faith is much more than paying lip-service to what a church believes. Sincere faith requires sincere actions that are consistent with that faith. Churches should reasonably be able to hold their employees accountable to a code of conduct.

The extensive nondiscrimination laws in Madison pose a conundrum, however, as religious liberty and the freedom to associate collide with other protected class distinctions. In this case, the court did not allow the protected class distinctions to overrule constitutional freedoms – for which we applaud it.

If you’ve followed along with us for some time, you know that this is not the first time that religious liberty has conflicted with Madison’s extensive nondiscrimination laws. In fact, we represented photographer and blogger Amy Lawson against another provision in the same law. Because Madison’s law also prohibits discrimination based on political beliefs, it threatened to force Amy, who happens to be pro-life, to take pictures and write blog posts supporting pro-abortion views.

Being forced to proclaim and promote a message that violates her religious convictions undermines Amy’s mission to tell stories “of God’s goodness, true love, encouraging joy, heartfelt laughter, and real tears.” Thankfully, a circuit court ruled that this law does not apply to Amy and her business and therefore does not stop her from operating her business consistently with her faith.

In the same way, being forced to employ people whose actions conflict with the church’s beliefs hurts the mission of the church.

That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom asked the government to uphold Capitoland Christian Center’s religious freedom and freedom of association.

In doing so, Capitoland Christian Center’s witness to the community can remain consistent with its mission – something any organization would want the freedom to do.

Sarah Kramer

Sarah Kramer

Digital Content Specialist

Sarah worked as an investigative reporter before joining the Alliance Defending Freedom team.

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