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Lessons From Barrett: Same-Sex Discrimination Ruling Against Catholic School and Resulting Religious Liberty Considerations

A strong state sexual orientation anti-discrimination law combined with a weak religious exemption has doomed a Catholic school’s decision to rescind an offer of employment to a gay food services director.  On December 16, 2015, a Massachusetts judge parsed through the state statute and issued a resounding affirmation of anti-discrimination values over the School’s religious hiring practices in Barrett vs. Fontbonne Academy.  While faith-based organizations outside Massachusetts may not be directly affected, as different law applies, they can all learn from its critical legal and practical implications.

Barrett’s Successful Hire, Then Rejection

Fontbonne Academy’s self-defined mission is “[t]o educate young women rooted in gospel values and the teachings of the Catholic Church.”  The School’s administrative personnel, teachers, and outreach employees are required to be members of the Catholic religion.  Significantly, student enrollment is not limited to members of the Catholic faith.

Barrett applied for Fontbonne’s Food Service Director position.  During his interview, a School representative told Barrett that every employee is regarded as a “minister of the mission” and is expected to model Catholic teaching and values.  In response, Barrett affirmed his agreement with such expectations and accepted the School’s employment offer.

Barrett then completed a new hire form, listing his husband as his emergency contact.  Upon learning this information, Fontbonne’s representative rescinded the job offer and informed Barrett that the School could not employ him due to his same-sex marriage.  Barrett sued.

Massachusetts State Anti-Discrimination Law and Narrow Religious Exemption

Massachusetts’ state anti-discrimination law prohibits adverse employment-related decisions based on sexual orientation, among other things.  The statute contains a narrow religious exemption, which applies only to religious institutions and other organizations “operated, supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization.”  Qualifying organizations must also limit “membership, enrollment, admission or participation to members” of their own religion, thereby allowing them to give preference in hiring only to members of the same religion.

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