A case involving a Montana woman whose contract as an assistant softball coach at a Montana high school was not renewed because she works at Planned Parenthood represents the latest in a string of dismissals by religiously affiliated employers under the guise of religious liberty rights.
As reported by the Montana Standard, Tarn Duff received some $1,500 from Billings Central Catholic School for coaching services in 2013. (She was also an unpaid volunteer in 2012.) She began working as a clinical assistant at Planned Parenthood’s Billings health-care center in November of 2013.
Before contracts for the spring 2014 sports season had even been offered, the school’s head coach, Coleman Rockwell, told Duff her contract would not be renewed. Duff, a two-time All-American outfielder, told the Standard that the only explanation Rockwell offered for the decision was her work at Planned Parenthood.
According to the paper, Patrick Haggerty, superintendent of Catholic schools in Montana, confirmed that Duff would not be offered a contract for the upcoming season. “Certainly being employed by Planned Parenthood, an organization that by its nature violates Catholic moral teaching by providing abortions, is not being a good role model to the children attending Catholic schools,” he said.
Duff’s story is the the latest to illustrate the legal tension between religiously affiliated employers and their efforts to regulate religious beliefs and exercise both inside and out of the workplace, and their employees’ own First Amendment religious freedom and association rights. As attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union note, this is a fight playing out across the country. In Montana, Indiana, Missouri, and elsewhere, Catholic schools have unapologetically fired teachers for their reproductive choices, prompting lawsuits in response. And while courts have typically sided with employees in those cases, finding that such an action by the school amounts to unlawful employment discrimination, at least one federal court in Alabama was willing to find a school’s religious affiliation exempted it from federal pregnancy discrimination law.
The tension is not confined to issues surrounding contraception, family planning, and abortion. As the New York Times reports, Catholic schools across the country have forced out of their jobs respected members of faculty and administration for legally marrying their same-sex partners. A high-profile firing in Seattle, of Eastside Catholic school’s vice principle, which resulted in student-led protests against the administration, is unfolding just as the Washington Supreme Court, in a sharply divided opinion, ruled that religiously affiliated nonprofits like schools and hospitals can’t discriminate against employees whose jobs are not religious in function.
With marriage equality advancing at a rapid pace nationwide, the federal courts subsumed in litigation over whether or not they may refuse to provide insurance coverage for contraception, and conservatives across the country in states and Washington, D.C., pushing legislation to insulate employers from civil rights claims under the guise of protecting religious freedom, we can expect to see many more of these cases to come.
In 2012, the Supreme Court recognized a “ministerial exception” that allows houses of worship to discriminate in their employment practices on religious grounds in certain, limited circumstances. What is unfolding now is a clear test of those limits.