Wednesday, July 22, 2009

WI Supreme Court allows for more discrimination

The Wisconsin State Supreme Court issued a decision yesterday regarding the hiring practices of religious schools. In its decision, the Court found that private religious schools had the right to terminate current employees or discriminate against potential hires without concern for the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act.

The specific case before the Court dealt with a first-grade teacher who had claimed she was terminated unfairly from a Catholic school in Onalaska, Wisconsin. Wendy Ostlund, 53, was fired from St. Patrick's Elementary School, which operated under the Diocese of La Crosse. She filed a complaint, and throughout the legal process won judgments affirming her case of discrimination.

But in a 4-3 decision, the State Supreme Court ruled for the school and the Diocese, stating that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1 Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution trumped the state's fair employment laws.

The ruling allows private religious schools the right to discriminate in the hiring (or firing) process, if they feel that such a move would better promote their religious objectives, giving private schools enormous leeway when it comes to discriminating employees based on age, race and/or gender.

Discrimination in the workplace should rarely be tolerated, if ever; the rare exception, however, comes when a job can only be performed by a certain type of person. A short person who is unable to lift heavy objects shouldn't be able to file a claim of discrimination if the job requires heavy lifting and the ability to reach high places. A person who is deaf shouldn't feel mistreated if they aren't hired for a job at a call center. And a person who has religious views contrary to those of a church's they're trying to work at, similarly, shouldn't expect to get a job from that church.

A church should be allowed, then, to discriminate against a person based upon their (the church's) views or upon any aspects of an applicant/employee they find to be conflicting with those views. Sadly, this means a church that doesn't believe in gender equality has the right to discriminate against women, or an ultra-conservative church that doesn't respect the rights of African Americans can discriminate against them in the hiring process if that's part of their religious dogma.

What's troubling, however, are the far-reaching consequences this ruling will undoubtedly have. Religious schools now have the right to discriminate without the basis of religious rule to back them up -- that is, they can discriminate simply because they are sponsored by a church. The Catholic Church doesn't discriminate against women in roles outside of the church itself (i.e. in classrooms). Age isn't a relevant discriminator either, as there is no dogma that says an older person is unable to educate younger minds.

Yet, the State Supreme Court ruling allows these scholarly institutions the right to discriminate simply because they are sponsored by religious organizations. No other private industry is afforded this luxury -- if you go into an Outback Steakhouse looking for employment, they cannot tell you that your age/race/gender is an issue, even though they are privately owned.

If churches want to discriminate based on religious belief, that is fine. But when a religious body discriminates against a particular group of people without justification derived from their belief structure, that is just plain wrong. Such hiring practices are not only detrimental to the cause of that organization, but they're also unfair in the eyes of society.

Churches should not be exempt from those rules -- they should obey them just as every other member and institution of society does.

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