February 4, 2013
'Proof of Faith' Lawsuit Could Test Limits of Hosanna-Tabor Ruling
First Amendment, Fair Employment and Housing Act go head to head in for-profit Christian school's case against former teachers.
A for-profit Christian school operated by a church in Southern California is suing two of its former teachers to prevent them from filing their own discrimination suit against the school—all over a questionnaire sent by the school asking the teachers to provide proof of their faith.
Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks bought Little Oaks Elementary in Thousand Oaks, California, in 2009; last year, "leaders told employees ... that they would need to provide a statement of faith and a reference from a pastor to renew their contracts," reports the Associated Press.
But after refusing to fill out the questionnaires, Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara were not rehired by the school. They threatened school officials with intent to sue, citing the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, a state law that prohibits religious discrimination by for-profit groups.
In response, Little Oaks filed its own lawsuit against the women, arguing that the school exercised its federal freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.
According to the Ventura County Star, Richard Kahdeman, a Westlake Village lawyer representing the church and school, said, "'The question is ultimately, do the nondiscrimination rights of the teachers under state law trump the religious rights of the school under federal law?'"
James A. Sonne, director of the Religious Liberty Clinic and a lecturer in law at Stanford University Law School, also told the Associated Press that the cases raises questions left unanswered by the United States Supreme Court's recent high-profile Hosanna-Tabor ruling.
"'Churches have First Amendment rights to choose their ministers,' Sonne said. 'The question is how does that apply outside the liturgical setting? The area where that will be played out is in the religious school context.'"