Local lawsuit tests gender discrimination rules for religious institutions

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Safter Christie Leonard moved to Manatee County in 2003, she began volunteering for Gospel crusade, a Bradenton nonprofit that manages The family church and Christian retreat conference center and produced videos for the Christian television network.

Leonard operated cameras for the organization and quickly decided that she wanted to branch out into audiovisual work as a career. After volunteering for six years, she landed a job as a video producer at Gospel Crusade, then took on more responsibility in the organization’s accounting department.

In early 2019, Leonard was made redundant. And in a lawsuit filed later that year, Leonard alleged the decision to fire her had nothing to do with her professional performance. Instead, she said, she got fired because Gospel Crusade president Phil Derstine believed she and a former employee, a woman who had been laid off in 2018, were in an “intimate relationship.”

Leonard (whose last name was Nafziger at the time) and the former colleague were married to men at the time, but lived apart from their husbands, and they had decided to move in together. According to Leonard, Derstine’s emails, texts and comments show that she was fired because she had separated from her husband and planned to live with the former co-worker.

For Leonard, losing his job was devastating.

“It was my family for 15 years,” she says. “The people I met at church – it was like my whole life. I haven’t been to a lot of places where I wasn’t surrounded by people from this congregation. Then there was my direct relationship with God and this feeling as [those at the church] represent God. There was this tremendous feeling of rejection coming from all directions. The feeling was that I was worth nothing, worse than nothing. “

In court records, lawyers for Gospel Crusade argue that Leonard’s firing was not based on his gender or marital status, but because of poor job performance. Citing the ongoing trial, the organization declined an interview with Sarasota Magazine, but issued a statement through one of his attorneys.

“Gospel Crusade generally does not comment on pending litigation,” the statement said. “The church denies Ms. Nafziger’s claims that she was discriminated against or that her dismissal was unfair. In 2018, Ms. Nafziger requested and received a 10-day vacation. Instead of returning to work at the end, Ms. Nafziger abandoned her. work for more than 80 days. The church gave her a second chance, but, due to her lack of work ethic and productivity, fired her less than two months later. “

After being fired, Leonard filed a complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing that she was “harassed and ultimately fired because of her gender / sexual orientation or her perceived sexual orientation,” according to a letter from determination issued by the Tampa commission office. in June 2019.

“Specifically,” the commission noted, Leonard claimed that Gospel Crusade “placed a condition on her continued employment that she was not living with a former employee due to rumors that they were having a lesbian relationship.”

The commission concluded that there was “no evidence” to support Gospel Crusade’s claim that Leonard was terminated for poor performance at work, and that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that Leonard’s dismissal violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964, which prohibits companies from refusing to hire or fire someone because of their race, color, religion, gender or national origin. In his lawsuit, Leonard also accuses that his dismissal was a violation of the Florida Civil Rights Act 1992, which prohibits discrimination against people on the basis of their “marital status”.

Kevin sanderson, Sarasota’s attorney representing Leonard, says the commission’s decision represented a break with the traditional understanding of sex discrimination, which historically has not covered gender identity or sexual orientation.

“The [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], when they came out in favor of Christie, it was in open rebellion against the Trump administration’s orders on how executive agencies should behave, “Sanderson says.” It was a big and bold decision. “

Then, in a decision released the year after Leonard filed for his lawsuit, the United States Supreme Court broadened the definition of what could be considered sex discrimination. In the decision, Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote that an “employer who intentionally penalizes an employee for being gay or transgender” is in violation of civil rights law.

At the same time, however, Gorsuch recognized what is called the Hosanna-Tabor exception” or “ministerial exception”, which gives religious institutions great latitude to recruit and fire religious leaders. But, for example, would a teacher in a religious school be called a “minister” and therefore be exempt from anti-discrimination laws? Gorsuch wrote that the scope of the rules remains “contested”.

In its documents, Gospel Crusade asserts that Leonard was covered by the “ministerial exception” because it “played an important role in carrying the church’s message and in carrying out its mission.” Sanderson, meanwhile, argues that Gospel Crusade dictated the content of the videos Leonard produced and that Leonard was only a “tech” for the organization.

“If this ministerial exception is really applied very widely, you might see schools, universities, maybe even medical institutions, anything related to a religious institution, claiming that all of their employees are related to religious education. and are all exempt, ”says Sanderson.

He notes that many such institutions employ large numbers of women. “For teachers and nurses,” he says, “it takes away those protections”.

Since his dismissal, Leonard, who says he identifies as “non-sexual” and not as a lesbian, found another accounting job, but would prefer to pursue a career in video production. She says Gospel Crusade, however, declined to serve as a benchmark for her.

“It’s very hard to say, ‘I’ve worked 15 years for so and so, but they can’t provide a reference,’ says Leonard. “These doors are closed to me.”

The experience also created strains within Leonard’s family. Her family members still attend services at Gospel Crusade, and she says people there have contacted her family to ask them to convince her to drop her trial.

Leonard has found a new church that she says supports her and that she has heard from many women who have experienced labor issues similar to hers. His legal fees are paid by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which was launched in 2018 to tackle sexual harassment and discrimination in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

“I am really concerned about the scope of this religious exemption that people will not be protected because of their workplace,” says Leonard. She points out that many of the Gospel Crusade board members are business people. “None of them could do what they did to me in their business,” she says. “They can treat people however they want, depending on the set of rules they come up with.”



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