A federal judge in Maryland has ruled that a Catholic nonprofit organization illegally discriminated against a gay employee by denying spousal benefits to his husband.
U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake said Catholic Relief Services, based in Baltimore, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination, and another federal law, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, when it withdrew the benefits from the employee’s husband, reports The Daily Record, a Maryland newspaper. The employee is identified in the suit by the pseudonym John Doe.
When Doe was hired as a data analyst for the agency, he was told it provided health insurance to employees’ spouses regardless of sex, according to his suit. That was in the middle of 2016. However, in November of that year, he was told the benefits were granted to his husband in error, his suit states. After much back-and-forth between Doe and officials at the agency, the benefits were rescinded November 1, 2017, just when Doe’s husband was undergoing costly dental work.
Catholic Relief Services officials contended the organization was entitled to an exemption from antidiscrimination laws because of its religious nature, and they cited the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage. But Blake said Doe’s job was not religion-oriented and that exemptions usually granted when employees are involved in ministry do not apply in his case.
“CRS insists that any judicial inquiry into this case inevitably requires an inquiry into matters of Catholic faith and doctrine,” Blake wrote in her decision, handed down last week. “This is not so; this case concerns a social service organization’s employment benefit decisions regarding a data analyst and does not involve CRS’s spiritual or ministerial functions.”
“A plain reading of [federal antidiscrimination law] reveals Congress’s intent to protect religious organizations seeking to employ co-religionists, but the reading urged by CRS would cause a relatively narrowly written exception to swallow up all of Title VII, effectively exempting religious organizations wholesale,” she continued. “Had Congress wished to exempt religious organizations in this manner, it could have done so, but it plainly did not.”
In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that Title VII, in banning sex discrimination in the workplace, also applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In a separate ruling that year, the court gave some leeway for religious groups to discriminate in employment that involves ministerial duties.
Doe’s suit accused Catholic Relief Services of violating state as well as federal laws. Blake ruled that it did violate the Maryland Equal Pay for Equal Work Act’s ban on sex discrimination, and she said the group admitted this violation, as it “provides dependent benefits for the male spouses of female employees who perform work of similar skill and effort, hold similar responsibilities, and share a common core of tasks with Doe, a male employee with a male spouse.”
She said she would the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, to determine whether the organization violated the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act or if a religious exemption applies here. She also said a jury will determine what damages the group owes Doe.
An attorney for Doe lauded the ruling. “We are thrilled with the court’s decision, which reaffirms the longstanding legal principle that an employer cannot use religion as an excuse to discriminate against its employees based on their sexual orientation,” Shannon Leary of Gilbert Employment Law said in a statement, The Daily Record reports. “Someone’s gender or whom they love has no place in employment decisions.”
Catholic Relief Services issued a statement saying, “We have studied the opinion and are considering our options going forward.”