Discrimination Lawsuits – Potential Bankruptcy for Houses of Worship

// June 28, 2016
Reading Time: 3 minutes


Religious organizations often rely on immunity laws and religious exemptions for protection against a variety of lawsuits, including discrimination allegations. Unfortunately, this reliance has bankrupted a large number of houses of worship and forced many others to close their doors permanently.

While the First Amendment of the Constitution provides free exercise of religion in the U.S., each state differs in its religious exemptions and the courts have ruled accordingly. Although the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allow for discrimination of employees under certain conditions, sometimes the exemption is not enough.

In the case of Dias v. Archdiocese of Cincinnati, a young woman was fired from her teaching position in a Catholic school because she got pregnant outside of wedlock. Dias filed the lawsuit in 2013 and the Supreme Court ruled in her favor, finding the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio guilty of employee discrimination. Dias was awarded $170,000.

The case of Barrett v. Fontbonne Academy further exemplifies why religious organizations shouldn’t expect to be immune from discrimination suits. Matthew Barrett was hired as the Food Services Director for a religious school in Milton, Massachusetts in 2013. After listing his husband as his emergency contact, he was terminated for being married to someone of the same sex. The school believed that by hiring someone engaged in a same-sex marriage, they were undermining their faith and not setting a good example for their teachings. The courts decided, however, a religious exemption did not apply in this case, and the defendant was awarded an undisclosed amount in damages.

The best way for houses of worship to protect themselves against discrimination allegations is to secure a comprehensive insurance policy, document and be consistent. The employment practices liability portion of USLI’s Houses of Worship product includes not only first party claims, but third party discrimination and harassment as well.


Attach rules, beliefs and expectations of employees on the employment application and in the employee handbook, and have the applicant/volunteer sign a statement that they have read and agree to the rules of the organization.

Practice what you preach!

Houses of worship should always be consistent in their discrimination. A religious exemption to the state anti-discrimination law applies only if a religious organization limits admission to people of a certain religion.


Job/Volunteer descriptions should state that a deep understanding of their faith is required. Applicants must be willing to pray with others who need help, provide faith-based tools and resources and be able to answer basic questions pertaining to their faith. Courts tend to view these activities as more clerical or minister-like in nature.

Spread the word!

Have beliefs posted on social media or published on the organization’s website for anyone to read about.

Did we mention document?

Volunteers, employees and members should sign a statement of faith drafted by the religious organization.

Remember, no house of worship is exempt from a discrimination lawsuit. For more information or a quote, contact your Non Profit Package underwriter.

As always, thank you for your support and business.

Lisa BrooksWritten by Lisa Brooks
Assistant Vice President, Underwriter, Houses of Worship Product Leader | Non Profit Package | 888-523-5545 Ext. 2139