A lawsuit tests a legal exemption that lets religious groups fire LGBTQ people

Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett in Washington on Oct. 26, 2020.

By Jack Jenkins

To Christie Leonard, working at Gospel Crusade was the perfect fusion of vocation and spiritual call, where her talents and her faith could work in tandem.

“I was doing my dream job,” she said in a recent interview with Religion News Service.

Besides providing her income, Gospel Crusade, which does international mission work and runs a conference center from its Bradenton, Fla., base, had immense spiritual significance for Leonard. Her family had attended classes at Gospel Crusade’s church, and since 2000, Leonard had worshiped at the Family Church, a religious community at the conference center, called the Christian Retreat. She cites attending there as cementing her decision to become “a follower of Christ,” and her attachment only deepened when she began working at the Christian Retreat a few years later.

Which is why, she told RNS, she felt crushed when she was fired in 2019, despite giving what she said were 15 of her “best years” to the organization.

Worse, she claims her firing had nothing to do with her work ethic or her spiritual devotion, but rather rumors surrounding her sexuality and her relationship with a co-worker.

She said the firing felt as if “God was throwing me away

Leonard is now suing Gospel Crusade, claiming her termination was driven by discrimination based on her gender and presumptions about her sexual orientation. The church has disputed her account in court, but the case is one of several that could test the reach of the “ministerial exception,” a legal workaround that exempts faith groups from nondiscrimination laws in hiring and firing as long as the employees in question are considered ministers — including, according to recent Supreme Court decisions, staffers such as Leonard who are not clergy

Like many who work for small religious organizations, Leonard juggled multiple jobs at Gospel Crusade. Initially hired as an hourly employee to help with video production, she later found herself assisting the group’s accounting team as well as working in human resources. By the time she was brought on as a salaried employee in 2017, she kept a cot under her desk for late nights spent editing video.

“I basically lived there,” she said.

About the same time, Leonard began working closely with a female colleague. According to Leonard, the two were in constant conversation and over time, she said, “we became almost inseparable.”

Their connection became a flash point, professionally and personally. Leonard said her colleague’s husband “became jealous in some ways” of their relationship. Rumors began to circulate that the two women, who Leonard said were both struggling with marital difficulties, were in a “romantic relationship or a sexual relationship.”

The colleague’s husband, who served on the church’s staff, then allegedly took his concerns to the senior pastor of the Family Church at Christian Retreat, Phil Derstine, who reached out to Leonard’s husband

Leonard insisted it was only after consulting with the two husbands that Derstine allegedly met with both women — not to talk about the situation, but to announce his decision: They could not spend any time together for 30 days. If they managed that, they could both attend a planned mission trip to Uganda in September 2018

Leonard said she and her colleague did as instructed and were able to take the trip together. But at a meeting while they were away, Gospel Crusade board members allegedly heard testimony from the colleague’s husband.

When the women returned, they did not immediately go to their respective homes. According to Leonard, her colleague went to a wedding while Leonard visited family out of state.

According to Leonard, Derstine promptly fired Leonard’s colleague but allowed Leonard to remain on staff — albeit as an hourly employee instead of a salaried one, and with a caveat: She could not move in with her colleague.< “He said, ‘I have one other condition: You cannot live with that woman,’ ” Leonard recalled, adding that he suggested she live with her brother. This time, Leonard did not comply. The two women secretly moved in together, coinciding with what Leonard described as a campaign of harassment led by Derstine and others at Gospel Crusade. “[Derstine] continued to ask me every single day that he called me, ‘Where are you living?’ ” she said. “I got text messages at all hours of the night asking me how my living situation was. I believe there were people that were following us. It was just a very stressful situation.” Allegedly at Derstine’s urging, family members contacted Leonard to inquire about the living situation. A Gospel Crusade board member allegedly confronted her to say that he knew where she lived. In early 2019, during a counseling session with Derstine’s wife, Leonard revealed a desire to live with her former colleague, noting she was now unemployed and separated from her husband. A few hours later, Derstine convened a meeting with Leonard to inform her that she was fired. Leonard said she was told she was fired for poor job performance. But she alleges that “I was having close to my best year” and that Derstine even asked her more than once after she was fired to assist with video production. Instead, Leonard believes she lost her job for very different reasons. She said Derstine hinted at larger subtext during the firing meeting, when he allegedly said the mere suggestion of Leonard moving in with her female co-worker was “a dealbreaker.” “I was fired for sex discrimination,” Leonard said. “They believed that I was in a lesbian relationship with my former co-worker.” The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed: That same year, they found probable cause that she had been discriminated against based on her gender, as well as the perception that she was involved in a same-sex relationship. Gospel Crusade declined to settle, and Leonard filed her lawsuit in federal court in October 2019, with the help of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. “The worst part for me is that these were my spiritual leaders . . . and that somehow God was throwing me away,” Leonard said, “that he didn’t love me, or value me or my service.” Gospel Crusade did not provide on-the-record responses to requests for comment. However, court documents show lawyers for the group repeatedly denying Leonard’s allegations, arguing that text messages and emails she supplied as evidence were taken out of context. The court documents also feature Gospel Crusade invoking the “ministerial exception,” a focus of a landmark 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical v. EEOC.

That case featured a dispute between a school affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and a former teacher who was fired when she attempted to return to work after being diagnosed with narcolepsy. The court sided with the school, which argued that the teacher was a minister and thus exempt from nondiscrimination laws. The ruling was seen as expanding the ministerial exception to include religious workers who are not ordained clergy.

Since 2012, religious institutions have invoked the ruling to justify the firing of LGBTQ employees. In 2019, a Catholic high school in Indiana fired a gay teacher after the Archdiocese of Indianapolis threatened to strip the school of its affiliation with the church. Explaining why he believed the fired teacher’s spouse — who taught at a nearby Catholic school — should also be fired, the archbishop argued the archdiocese “recognizes all teachers, guidance counselors and administrators as ministers.”

But the ministerial exception is complicated by the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, in which the majority argued that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which prohibits hiring discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin — also protects employees against discrimination because they are gay or transgender.

In his majority opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch argued that the court is “deeply concerned with preserving the promise of the free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution,” and suggested that laws such as the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act might allow religious groups to avoid nondiscrimination statutes and “supersede Title VII’s commands in appropriate cases.”

The arrival of Justice Amy Coney Barrett has potentially tipped the balance of the court toward a more conservative understanding of religious liberty and the exception.

Cases such as Leonard’s may be used to reconcile the Tabor and Bostock rulings. “If [religious] organizations are allowed to simply do whatever they want to when it comes to employment,” said Kevin Sanderson, Leonard’s attorney, “and aren’t held to the same standards as other employers despite what our laws say, you could have millions of people who are really unprotected in the workplace.”

Leonard remains concerned about others who could face her same situation. “What scares me a little bit is the idea that this ministerial exception — that they’ve now decided I’m a minister — has a growing reach to affect more people,” she said. “Because [Derstine] would say every believer is a leader.”

She also expressed deep frustration with what she described as the church’s patriarchal bent. “Somehow, a room full of these guys get together, say they speak for God and get to treat people however they want?”

The whole ordeal has frayed relationships with friends and family and taken a toll on her faith, but Leonard managed to find a new religious home. She now attends an Episcopal Church, where she says she feels supported and where the priest appears to be “completely different” than the “businessman” she said she worked for at Gospel Crusade.

She also takes comfort in the Episcopal Church’s long-standing support for LGBTQ rights: Should a situation like what happened at Gospel Crusade arise at her new church, she feels more protected.

“That denomination would stand by me,” she said.

Complete Article HERE!

Man hands out photos of gay Catholic teacher’s family in attempt to get her fired

St. Thomas University rallied behind teacher and rejected man’s “hateful” message

Dr. Kelly Wilson and St. Thomas University

By

A lesbian professor at a Catholic university was targeted by a man who handed out photos of her family on campus in an attempt to get her fired.

The man was protesting the employment of Dr. Kelly Wilson, a professor in the theology department at the University of St. Thomas, a private, Roman Catholic university in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn.

The photos distributed by the man, who hasn’t been identified, showed Wilson with her family and children.

But his plan backfired after the university rallied behind Wilson and said it rejected the man’s “hateful message,” KARE 11 reports.

Wilson said that in seven years her sexuality had never “come up” while working at St. Thomas.

“This isn’t new to me that I would get some pushback from some people I just never know or knew it would include a picture of my kids as evidence of why I should be fired,” Wilson said.

She learned of the protest after campus security called her to report the man adding that security was

concerned that “this was the first time he has targeted an individual and used a picture of their family.”

Wilson said that she received support from across the campus, including students, faculty, and leaders.

In a statement, the University of St. Thomas affirmed its support of Wilson and said that the man was banned from the school’s campus.

“This man has a history of criticizing St. Thomas employees. He is not allowed on campus, but we are limited in how we can respond to him when he is on public property. When we found out about this latest incident, we reached out to offer our full support to Dr. Wilson,” they said.

“We also sent a university-wide communication rejecting this man’s hateful message and reaffirming our commitment to an inclusive environment for our LGBTQA+ community members. This is consistent with Catholic teaching, which calls on us to love and care for every person. As Pope Francis reminds us, ‘God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity.’”

In addition to support from colleagues, Wilson used publicity from the man’s protest to raise funds for Dignity Twin Cities, an LGBTQ Catholic organization.

“I just thought the best way to respond to someone like this is to support those systems that he’s trying to break down,” she said.

Wilson added: “You don’t have pick being gay or Catholic, it’s not either or moments or decisions what it is I believe I am being my authentic self, I believe that is what my church asks me to do what the scriptures ask me to do and what God expects of me, and this is my home is the Catholic Church.”

As well as raising funds. Wilson and a colleague also extended an invitation to Father James Martin — a Jesuit priest, New York Times bestselling author, and advocate for greater LGBTQ outreach by the Church — to come and speak to LGBTQ Catholics at St. Thomas.

Martin accepted, telling KARE 11 that the Church “teaches that LGBT people are to be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

He also slammed the man who protested Wilson’s employment at a Catholic university, calling it “cruel” to have passed out images of Wilson’s children.

“That is certainly something not part of Catholic teaching, not part of the Christian world and not what Jesus asked us to do,” he said. “Sometimes I like to say that these people are so Catholic, these protestors, that they forget about being Christian.”

Complete Article HERE!

Wounds of This Generation Can Harm Children

Jesus, what a headline grabbin’ fool!

 

 

Bishop Harry Jackson claims that same-sex marriage will lead to “terrible suffering” for children, who will inevitably “turn to lives of crime and violence.” Say, bishop, what caused all the crime and violence before the DOMA repeal? Sheesh!

 

By Harry R. Jackson, Jr., Guest Columnist

Lost in the never-ending push to redefine marriage are those who suffer most when they are denied the benefit of a traditional marriage. Children need both a mother and a father far more than any adult needs societal approval of a romantic relationship. And although American children may, for the most part, have food, shelter and education, too many are denied this most basic need. According to the most recent US Census, a third of American children live apart from their biological fathers. For African American children, it is nearly two thirds.

bishop-harry-jacksonI have written a great deal, along with many others, about the terrible consequences of father abandonment for children. Children who grow up without their fathers are more likely to be poor, use drugs, commit crimes, drop out of school and commit suicide. But behind these statistics are millions of individual human stories of intense pain. The marriage debate has become so focused on the desires and demands of various groups of adults that we have forgotten the legitimate needs and terrible suffering of children.

An absent father leaves a deep wound in the heart of his child. Writing in the magazine Essence, singer VaShawn Mitchell spoke for millions when he admitted, “As I approach 35, I still have many unanswered questions about my biological father and the reasons it took me nearly 30 years to realize that I had to forgive him and move forward. I had questions like… What man would have a son and not want to be a part of his life?”

Mitchell’s unanswered question goes to the heart of fatherlessness: the child who grows up feeling constantly rejected by the man who should have been his provider and protector. Critics of the traditional family have long sought to convince us that the gender of a parent is irrelevant: boys can learn to be men even if they are raised by two “mommies,” and girls do not need their biological fathers in their lives to have healthy relationships with men in the future.

Artists and authors have told a different tale for millennia. The longing of the abandoned child for his or her father has been a theme in literature since at least 1200 BC, when Homer told of Telemachus’ ache to know his father Odysseus. More recently, Maya Angelou described the occasional visits from her biological father in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “Daddy Baily visited occasionally, bringing shopping bags full of fruit. He is shown like a Sun God, benignly warming and brightening his dark subjects.”

Multiple studies confirm that children abandoned by their fathers often report feelings of rage and shame. As adults, they tend to have difficulty trusting others and struggle with fearing abandonment in their relationships. Rapper Lecrae expresses a young boy’s yearning for his father in his song, “Just Like You.” He notes the reason so many fatherless boys fall into making poor life decisions:

So now I’m looking at the media and following what they feed me,
Rap stars, trap stars, whoever wants to lead me
Even though they lie, they still tell me that they love me,
They say I’m good at bad things at least they proud of me

Is it any wonder that young boys turn to lives of crime and violence, when the purveyors of such lifestyles are the only men to show them any real attention? It is about as surprising as a starving child attempting to steal bread. And no social policy that fails to take into account the deep and legitimate need that every child has for both a mother and a father can ever be considered fair or just.

What does the internal aching so many children have for their missing fathers have to do with how marriage is legally defined? Advocates of redefining marriage constantly scoff at the notion that their policy goals could have a negative effect on anyone. “How does the legal union of two homosexual men affect your marriage?” they ask mockingly.

And of course the debate has nothing to do with my marriage or yours. It has to do with how future generations of adults will approach the very idea of marriage and parenthood. We already have nearly two decades of social experimentation in Scandinavia to draw upon. And it tells us that the broader the definition of marriage is the fewer adults bother with it in the first place. Since legalizing registered partnerships and gay marriage in Scandinavia, an overwhelming number of adults have simply stopped bothering to get married in the first place.

As I have pointed out many times before, words that mean everything, mean nothing. The looser we make the definition of marriage, the fewer people will feel bound to its obligations and constraints. And while broken relationships can hurt adults, they can destroy children.

Complete Article HERE!