Baptist Church Pastor Fired after Coming Out as Trans in Sermon

In the latest intersection between LGBTQ+ rights and religious freedoms, a Canadian Baptist church pastor was voted out after she came out as Trans in a sermon. Find out what happened, and how recent court decisions have shaped and limited the options available to religious leaders here in the United States.

Baptist Church Votes to Remove Pastor Fired for Coming Out as Trans

The livestreamed sermon on June 14, 2020, for the Lorne Park Baptist Church in Mississauga, Toronto, Canada, wasn’t your everyday Sunday lesson. In front the whole congregation and the greater community of the internet, Junia Joplin came out as a trans woman.

“I want to proclaim to my transgender siblings that I believe in a God who knows your name, even if that name hasn’t been chosen yet,” she said during the livestream. “I believe in a God who calls you a beloved daughter even if your parents insist you’ll always be their son.”

The sermon became popular among LGBTQ Christians online, who valued how she wove together themes of the religionand self-acceptance that so many gay and trans individuals struggle with. Many of Joplin’s parishioners were supportive as well, including some she hadn’t expected.

However, not everyone was so enthusiastic about her coming out, however. Shortly afterward she received an email from church leadership, and on July 20, the congregation voted on whether to remove Joplin from her position. Aftera a narrow vote, the congregation fired her for coming out as trans.

A Congregation Divided Over a Trans Pastor’s Coming Out

The close vote raised questions and controversy for many within the Lorne Park Baptist Church community. A former pastor of the church spoke up on the church Facebook account, perpetuating the gender identity discrimination by deadnaming Joplin and intentionally using the wrong pronouns. At the same time, other frequent attendees questioned how the vote was done, finding that they had been excluded because they were not official members of the congregation.

In the months since the vote, the church has experienced substantial upheaval. Six of its eight executive council members and two of its pastoral team have stepped down. When asked their reasoning for removing her, several parishioners admitted they voted against her for reasons other than the church’s theological beliefs, indicating that their motives were purely discriminatory, rather than based on some religious belief or tenant.

Trans Employees’ Rights in the Face of Gender Discrimination

Here in the United States, 2020 has been a big year for Trans employees’ rights. Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court extended Title VII’s protections against gender discrimination officially include same-sex orientation discrimination and gender identity discrimination. Now, no matter where Trans* employees live and work, they can file wrongful termination or gender discrimination claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or in federal court when they are fired for coming out or expressing their true gender identity.

Pastors Find Employment Law Doors Closed Under Ministerial Exception

Pastor Joplin is far from the first minister to find herself removed from her pulpit after coming out as LGBTQ. The Shower of Stoles project has gathered over a thousand liturgical stoles and sacred items from pastors, priests, ministers, and rabbis who faced sexual orientation and transgender discrimination within their churches, synagogues, and places of worship.

However, while their Trans* brothers and sisters have found shelter in the Supreme Court’s rulings, pastors and ministers still do not have access to those same federal laws. That is because of the “Ministerial Exception” to federal anti-discrimination laws. This exception says that, because of the U.S. Constitution’s law against government-established religion, churches and other religious institutions must be allowed to control who they employ in ministerial positions. The Supreme Court recently ruled that this included Catholic school teachers. It would even more clearly apply to a Baptist church pastor such as Joplin.

That doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done when transgender religious discrimination threatens the job of a Trans pastor or minister. At Eisenberg & Baum, we understand the impact gender identity discrimination on transgender and nonbinary pastors and employees. From our office in New York City, our employment discrimination attorneys can help Trans* pastors negotiate with congregations and employers to protect their rights. We are committed to making our office a safe space for you and your loved ones. If you feel like your position is at risk because of your gender identity or expression, contact us. We’ll meet with you and help create a strategy that protects you against gender identity discrimination.

Religious Discrimination Against Muslim Women Sparks Lawsuit Against Airline Support Company

Religiously observant Muslim women often face discrimination because their modest dress sets them apart. When religious discrimination against Muslim women hit an airline support company, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stepped in and filed a lawsuit to protect their right to religious accommodations.

In this blog post, I will review the complaint in EEOC v. Aviation Port Services, Inc., Civil Action No. 1:18-cv-10909, which involves religious discrimination against Muslim women. I will discuss how Title VII applies to religion and requests for religious accommodations, and what employees can do if they face wrongful termination for their faith.

Airline Support Company Denies Muslim Women Religious Accommodations

Airline personnel have a very specific dress code. Aviation Port Services provides stewards, stewardesses and other staff to airlines from its location in Boston, Massachusetts. The company dress code required women who worked as passenger service agents to wear company-provided pants or knee-length skirts. However, the company employed six Muslim women whose religious practices included wearing modest dress. These women had previously been allowed a religious accommodation to wear long skirts while working, instead of the knee-length skirts or form-fitting pants.

But in late 2016, Aviation Port Services told these women that they would no longer be allowed to wear their religiously observant clothing. They again requested religious accommodation and objected to the change in policy. Then in January 2017, all six women were fired for not complying with the company’s uniform policy.

Title VII Prevents Religious Discrimination and Protects Religious Accommodations

Religious discrimination is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When a person’s sincerely held religious belief conflicts with company policy, that person is entitled to request religious accommodations. If the employer can make a reasonable accommodation without creating an undue hardship on the company’s business, Title VII requires it to do so. The law, like every state and federal anti-discrimination law, prevents employers from firing an employee in retaliation for filing a request for religious accommodation or complaining about religious discrimination at work.

When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reviewed the Muslim women’s religious discrimination complaints, it found reasonable cause to believe that Aviation Port Services had violated Title VII by removing their employees’ religious accommodations and then terminating their employment when they complained about the change in policy. On May 7, 2018, it filed a complaint on behalf of the six Muslim employees in federal court in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. EEOC New York Regional Attorney Jeffrey Burstein said in a statement:

“Employers have an affirmative obligation under federal law to make reasonable modifications to company policies, such as dress codes, to accommodate their employees’ religious practices. . . . Despite this obligation, Aviation Port Services simply refused to allow these women to continue working in attire consistent with their religious beliefs.”

Fighting Back Against Religious Discrimination Against Muslim Women at Work

When an employer insists on a discriminatory policy, it can force observant women to choose between their religion and their employment. But as EEOC New York District Director Kevin Berry said:

“Federal law is clear: employers cannot refuse to provide a religious accommodation barring an undue hardship, and employees have a right to oppose discriminatory practices without fear of losing their jobs.”

Fighting back against religious discrimination against Muslim women can include practical changes as well as money damages. Depending on the nature of the discrimination, and employees’ personal priorities, an employment discrimination attorney and the EEOC can help them seek:

  • Changes to company policy and practices
  • Religious accommodations that are not unduly burdensome on employers
  • Court ordered bars on religious discrimination at work
  • Anti-discrimination training for managers, supervisors, and coworkers
  • Back pay for employees terminated for not complying with policies that violate their religious convictions
  • Money damages for expenses related to finding replacement employment
  • Punitive damages for malicious treatment of religious minority employees
  • Attorney fees and costs related to litigation

Religious discrimination against Muslim women often forces them to choose between their sincerely held religious beliefs and company dress codes and other policies. When an employer refuses to provide reasonable religious accommodations, a skilled employment discrimination attorney can advocate on your behalf with the company, at the EEOC, and in state and federal court. You don’t have to tolerate religious discrimination at work. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our employment discrimination attorneys know what reasonable religious accommodations look like, and what it means to our clients when those accommodations are denied. Contact us today to explore your options and find solutions that respect your religious beliefs.

Could a Religious Objection to a Flu Shot Cost You Your Job?

When your religious beliefs don’t match your boss’s it can sometimes create conflicts in the work place. But those conflicts don’t just arise between major faiths. Sometimes a seemingly small difference, like a religious objection to a flu shot, can result in religious discrimination, or even cost you your job. Find out what you can do when that happens.

In this blog I will review EEOC v Memorial Healthcare, Case No. 2:18-cv-10523, and the Title VII protections against religious discrimination. I will examine whether a religious objection to a flu shot could lead to an employment discrimination claim, and what reasonable religious accommodations may include.

Health Care Company Revokes Employment Offer Over Religious Objection to a Flu Shot

Yvonne Blair was all set to start working as a medical transcriptionist at Memorial Healthcare in Owosso, Michigan. The health care company had extended her an employment offer for a position that would eventually allow her to work from home, creating medical records for the facility.

But then the health care company learned that Yvonne had a religious objection to a flu shot or spray. It revoked its offer of employment, refusing to hire Yvonne even when she offered to wear a mask in the office instead. The company already had a policy in place authorizing the use of masks for employees who were medically unable to take a vaccine.

Yvonne filed a complaint for religious discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process failed, the EEOC filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (Case No. 2:18-cv-10523).

Title VII Protects Against Religious Discrimination, Big and Small

The EEOC was enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law protects employees against discrimination based on a number of traits, including religion. It makes it illegal for an employer to base employment decisions on a person’s affiliation with an organized religion or holding of a sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral belief. It applies to any aspect of employment – from hiring and firing, to job assignments, promotions, and training.

Religious discrimination protections work much in the same way as the American with Disabilities Act. A person with a religious objection to a policy or practice in the workplace can request reasonable accommodation for their beliefs or practices. The employer must make reasonable adjustments to the working environment to allow the employee to practice her religion as long as doing so will have a minimal burden on the company’s business operations. Common religious accommodations include:

  • Flexible scheduling to avoid working on a person’s holy day
  • Voluntarily swapping assignments to avoid contact with religiously offensive products (like beef or pork)
  • Exceptions to the company dress code for religious head coverings
  • Use of beard nets to cover religious facial hair in food preparation

In Yvonne Blair’s case, she had a religious objection to a flu shot policy at the health care facility. She requested a religious accommodation, exempting her from the mandatory influenza vaccination and offering instead to wear a mask whenever she was in the office. The fact that the facility already had a mask policy for those medically unable to take vaccines suggested this was a reasonable adjustment to normal office policy.

The EEOC’s complaint was recently filed in federal district court, so there is no court decision on the issue as of yet. However, the complaint lays out Blair’s religious objection, request for accommodation, and the revocation of an employment offer. Unless the health care company puts forward a strong defense, she will likely be able to be compensated for its illegal employment decision based on Blair’s religious belief.

Religious discrimination for sincerely held religious beliefs may not get as much press as racial discrimination or sexual harassment, but it can be just as devastating for its victims. When a religious objection to a flu shot or other office policy costs you your job, you need an experienced workplace discrimination attorney to help you work through possible accommodations, negotiate with your employer, and help you file a complaint with the EEOC or in federal court.

At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, we have experienced employment discrimination attorneys who can help. If you face religious discrimination at work, contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today explore your options and protect your religious freedom.

Religious Discrimination at Work: Is it Getting Worse?

Religion has become a political talking point over the last year. But has all the press around President Donald Trump’s campaign and later travel bans affected religious minorities’ ability to do their jobs? Is religious discrimination at work getting worse?

In this blog post I will review Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, and how it applies to religious discrimination. I will give examples of how the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission addresses religious discrimination in hiring and workplace accommodations. And I will explain what to do if you think you are being discriminated against because of your faith.

What is Religious Discrimination?

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate against an employee because of that person’s religion (among other traits). Religious discrimination includes treating a person differently at work because of his or her sincerely held religious beliefs. The law protects current and former employees, as well as applicants. It covers members of established religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, as well as anyone who has sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs. It also applies to discrimination based on the religion of a person’s spouse.

State and federal religious discrimination laws protect against biased decision making in hiring, scheduling, and promotions. They also forbid religious harassment. This includes making offensive remarks about a person’s religious beliefs or practices, but only if they are serious or frequent enough to create a hostile work environment. The federal Civil Rights Act also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs unless doing so would create a burden on the employer’s business. An employer can be required to make reasonable adjustments to scheduling, dress code, or other company policies to allow employees to follow the teachings of their faith.

Examples of Religious Discrimination

Over the years, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has taken on a number of religious discrimination cases. In recent years, many have involved discrimination against Muslim employees because of their religious observances. Recent EEOC cases include claims that employers:

  • Failed to accommodate Muslim prayer practices, particularly during Ramadan
  • Refused to hire Muslim women who wore a hijab or khimar (head scarves)
  • Fired Muslim truck drivers who refused to transport alcohol
  • Created a hostile work environment by labeling Muslim employees “terrorists” and “habeebies” and saying they “blow things up”
  • Refused to accommodate Islamic and Sikh employees by allowing them to wear beards at work
  • Fired employees who sought to observe their religion while at work
  • Retaliated against employees who sought religious accommodation

What is Reasonable Religious Accommodation?

Religious employees are permitted to request reasonable accommodations for the practice of their faith. But if those accommodations can be denied if they would negatively affect the employer’s business. History has shown this impact can be very small and still be enough to qualify as undue hardship. If the accommodation reduces an employee’s efficiency, infringes on other employees’ rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or shifts undesirable work to other employees, it could be considered unreasonable.

Employers have also been successful in claiming that a person’s religious clothing or appearance (such as a Sikh’s beard) interfere with the company’s brand or public image. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the United States Supreme Court held that the company’s interest in its “look policy” wasn’t strong enough to outweigh a teenage Muslim employee’s right to wear a religious head covering.

Are Presidential Policies Affecting Religious Discrimination?

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign included language that many saw as anti-Muslim. Now that he is President, his executive orders banning travel from predominantly Muslim countries are tied up in court based on the fact that they are based on illegal religious discrimination. This as led some to wonder whether his rhetoric could be making religious discrimination at work worse.

The EEOC has reported that workplace discrimination was already on the rise in the decades leading up to Donald Trump’s presidency. In 2013, it reported that complaints of religious discrimination at work had doubled, from 1,709 in 1997, to 3,721 in 2013. In 2011 there were over 4,000 religious discrimination claims. Internationally, universities in the United Kingdom have been reporting a significant increase in hate speech against Muslim and Jewish students. At least one study, released in 2014, suggests that simply including any religion on a résumé reduces the chance an employee will be called back.

Policy changes made by Donald Trump may also create hurdles for employers seeking to hire members of certain religious faiths, particularly Muslims. If the U.S. Supreme Court decides to fully reinstate the travel ban it could make it harder for employees of that faith to travel for work. His policies on immigration could also cause employers to believe hiring employees who openly practice a minority religion often associated with immigrants could invite a raid on their premises and disrupt their business.

Whether there is an objective increase in the number of religious discrimination claims as the result of President Trump’s words or policies remains to be seen. Religious discrimination caused by a national politician, or the biases of an individual employer, is still illegal under federal and state law. If you have been denied religious accommodation or believe you were passed over or let go because of your religious beliefs, contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to an employment discrimination attorney. We can help you identify your options, advocate for your rights, and get relief from religious discrimination or harassment at work.