August 9, 2018

State high court: No immunity for religious institutions from employee discrimination suits

Connecticut's high court has unanimously decided that private religious institutions in the state are not immune from lawsuits for discrimination and, like other employers, they must litigate those claims before the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

That decision came after Trinity Christian School in Windsor was accused of firing a teaching assistant who requested maternity leave and wasn't married.

The school initially tried to have the complaint dismissed by the CHRO, and later appealed to the Superior Court by claiming immunity before appealing to the state Supreme Court. Now, it will head back to the CHRO once again, but this time to argue the claim by its former employee.

In the opinion released Tuesday, the high court said that the Superior Court had correctly concluded the law's "plain and unambiguous terms" do not function as a grant of immunity and asserted statutes that do allow immunity from suits must be strictly construed.

Trinity Christian School argued state law gives religious institutions the ability to hire and fire employees who have direct contact with students and are spreading the word of the religion — making them exempt from Connecticut's employment discrimination act.

But in its ruling, the high court said: "In this regard, the court observed that there was nothing in the language of subsection (d) [of the statute] that reasonably could be construed as conferring immunity on the plaintiff."

"On appeal to this court," the opinion continues," … the plaintiff renews its claim that [the law] confers on religious institutions immunity from employment discrimination actions. We reject the plaintiff's claim for the reasons set forth by the trial court."

Matthew S. Carlone, the school's attorney, said the ruling creates a governmental burden on school's free exercise of religion.

"Because now we don't have immunity, we have to litigate this on merits," Carlone said. "Any time there is a claim they will have to fight it — the cost of litigation and time, that's a burden under the law."

The Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, the defendant in the case, argued religious institutions should have to prove the employee they acted against actually was performing religious functions and that state statute does not provide the school immunity.

Michael Roberts, CHRO's attorney, said the Supreme Court affirmed the school must go through the commission's civil rights process.

"It confirms that there has to be a case-by-case inquiry when it comes to civil rights cases," Roberts said. "You have to look at each individual case as it is and to have carte blanche immunity is precarious."

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