The Little Oaks School in Thousand Oaks filed a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday, claiming its right to hire teachers who subscribe to the school's Christian belief, arguing that its hiring practice is protected by civil rights laws at both the state and federal levels.
However, the teachers, Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara, claim they are protected from religious discrimination being exercised by the school under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act that applies to for-profit religious groups.
The California Fair Employment and Housing Act protects their jobs because it prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion; and while it contains certain exemptions, they are only for nonprofit religious groups. The school is recognized as a for-profit entity owned by Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks.
In a statement, the women’s attorneys called the school’s lawsuit a desperate attempt to “avoid the consequences of their illegal and discriminatory practices.”
When the church Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks bought the school in 2009, it began requiring employees to complete questionnaires that asked about their church attendance and what their pastor had to say about their beliefs.
The teachers were fired in 2012 when they refused to provide the Little Oaks School with a statement of faith and a reference from a pastor.
The question may come down to: do the nondiscrimination rights of the teachers under state law trump the religious rights of the school under federal law?
Last year's Supreme Court ruling that religious workers can't sue for job discrimination, never specified whether that includes teachers at religious schools. The court refused to specify in that ruling what constituted a religious worker, leaving teachers uncertain of their status under the law.
The school claims that the free-exercise clauses of the U.S. Constitution and California constitution, Supreme Court decisions, and civil-rights laws guarantee them the liberty to hire solely Christian teachers.
The case could involve the reluctance of federal courts to make religious liberty decisions that overturn laws that affect all citizens, said Alan Brownstein, a Harvard-educated law professor at UC Davis. On the other hand, lawyers could cite a Supreme Court decision that prohibits the government from interfering with a congregation’s decision to pick a minister, rabbi or imam.
The school lawyer, Richard Kahdeman, believes the church’s right to free exercise of its faith pre-exists federal law and even the federal government itself. The government can either leave that right alone (“Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) or infringe upon it; it cannot grant it.
The “right” not to be discriminated against, by contrast, is a privilege granted by the government and, furthermore, is an infringement not just of religious freedom but of property rights, forcing employers to spend their money on the labor of individuals they would otherwise not choose to employ. If two rights — one God-given and one state-given — come into conflict, the one granted by the state ought to give way to the one granted by God.
The Rev. Rob McCoy, pastor of the church and headmaster of the school, said that if the former teachers prevail, “any for-profit company that is owned by a religious organization will not have the religious freedom to exercise their beliefs.”
Instead of settling, church and school leaders filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, asking for an injunction that would prevent the teachers from filing their lawsuit in a different venue. They wanted to make sure litigation took place in federal court.
James A. Sonne, director of the Religious Liberty Clinic and a lecturer in law at Stanford University Law School, said a constitutional ruling under federal law would most likely trump a state provision, which may be the reason the church filed in federal court.