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Lawyers Don't Agree on Firing of Lesbians

[MILFORD, CT] ? Lauralton Hall administrators are in "plain violation" of state law after forcing a lesbian couple out of jobs at the Catholic school, some legal experts said Friday, while others argued the school is within its rights as a religious institution.
State discrimination law prohibits firing a person based on sexual orientation and provides no explicit exceptions to religious groups, some Greater New Haven legal scholars said.

But Lauralton Hall was justified in its action because federal law gives a religious institution freedom to preserve its integrity by employing people based on the institution's beliefs, said Andrew Cohen, a New Haven lawyer who represents employers in discrimination actions, but is not involved in the Lauralton case.

The school is supported by a federally recognized exception to state anti-discrimination laws and the constitutional principle of religious freedom, Cohen said.

After learning of the couple's plan to unite in a private ceremony, administrators at the all-girls school told the two staff members, who are well liked, that they must resign or be fired, sources said.

The Register is withholding the identity of the women. Administrators at the school would not comment on the case.

Lauralton's action may be a matter of "judicial interpretation," some experts noted, saying that the question is not whether state law provides an exception to religious organizations, but whether courts would recognize such an exception as implicit in the spirit of the law.

Cohen said he is not familiar with specifics of the Lauralton case, but there is ample federal law to support a religious institution's decision to fire someone for having a lifestyle inconsistent with the institution's beliefs.

Federal law contains a "well-recognized" exception to most discrimination laws, called the "ministerial exception," which is rooted in the constitutional idea of separation of church and state, Cohen said. This notion limits how much government can interfere with religious functions of a church, mosque or synagogue.

Cohen said there is no legal precedent in Connecticut to challenge ministerial exception.

"These institutions need freedom to employ people based on their religious beliefs," Cohen said. "A religious institution in Connecticut has a strong basis ... for hiring and firing people based on its beliefs."

Other lawyers said state law is clear: It's illegal to fire someone solely based on sexual orientation.

John Williams, a civil rights authority, said there is "no question" the school's actions constitute discrimination, but the real question is whether a religious exception would apply.

A strict reading of the statute prohibiting workplace discrimination contains nothing that would except Lauralton Hall and make it legal for administrators to remove gay educators, he said.

"So far as I know, the fact that it's a church-sponsored school ... doesn't carve out a bona fide exception," Williams said. "I don't think even Lauralton Hall would argue that they have a right to hire (only) Catholics. ... It seems self-evident that if they can't discriminate in that way, then it doesn't extend to a person's sexual orientation. A person's sexual orientation has nothing to do with performance in the workplace. I think it's a pretty straightforward violation of state law."

Hugh Keefe, a New Haven lawyer known for criminal defense, said while no explicit exception is laid out in state law, courts could interpret the statute to contain an exception based on religious freedom, guaranteed under state and federal constitutions.

Keefe said the legality of Lauralton's action boils down to whether the state courts view certain rights as implicit ? no matter how specific or unambiguous a statute may be.

An example, Keefe said, is the barring of gays from marching under the gay pride banner at New York City's St. Patrick's Day Parade. A court in New York sided with parade organizers, finding that allowing flaunting of gay pride goes against principles of Catholicism.

The court determined it was a Catholic parade and the church "had the right to exclude a group that violated one of the principles of the religion," Keefe said.

The real issue is one of "common sense," Keefe said, arguing that people who work for Lauralton Hall or any other religious school have "certain obligations," including choosing lifestyles that don't clash with the institution's beliefs.

Related Stories:

July 2, 2002 - Lesbians' Firings Fuels Outrage

July 2, 2002 - Letter to Editor: Gospels' Voice Marred

July 2, 2002 - Letter to Editor: Church "Laws" Clearly Enforced on Selective Basis

July 2, 2002 - Letter to Editor: Punishing Pair's Love Makes Alumna Ashamed

June 28, 2002 - Lauralton Will Oust Two Lesbians

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