Friday, May 2, 2008

Bans on "Marital Status" Discrimination: A Threat to Religious Freedom?

Various media outlets (ABC News, USAToday, AP, among others) have devoted attention to a recent situation involving Wheaton College, a Christ-centered liberal arts institution in suburban Chicago. Kent Gramm, a Professor of English, has decided to leave Wheaton. Professor Gramm and his wife are poised to divorce.

Prior to joining the Wheaton community, potential students and teachers review the college's Community Covenant. They then decide whether they will to voluntarily join a community that strives to adhere to the beliefs and values articulated in that covenant. The covenant addresses the issue of divorce; an extremely helpful "Q&A" with Wheaton President Duane Litfin about the covenant and its application to divorce is available here.

According to Christianity Today's blog, Wheaton's faculty handbook states that the college may retain a teacher getting a divorce "when there is reasonable evidence that the circumstances that led to the final dissolution of the marriage related to desertion or adultery on the part of the other partner." Media reports indicate that Professor Gramm declined to discuss with Wheaton the circumstances of his divorce.

Quoted in Inside Higher Education, Professor Gramm observes that the State of Illinois forbids employers from "discriminating" against employees and potential employees on the basis of "marital status." Apparently aware of legal protections of religious freedom, Professor Gramm does not seem to be saying that Wheaton is violating state law. He then implies, somewhat ironically, that by considering divorce in personnel decisions, Wheaton has "lower standards" than does the State of Illinois.

Most courts would agree that the Constitution forbids the state from punishing Wheaton through the application of a ban on "marital status" discrimination in employment. However, it is less clear that the relevant Illinois statute actually exempts religious employers from the ban on marital status discrimination in the first place -- as it should. The Illinois Human Rights Act defines "employer[s]" covered by the Act in such a way to protect them from certain discrimination claims. The Act says that "employer" does not include religious institutions "with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion."

This language clearly protects religious employers in Illinois from liability for "discriminating" on the basis of "religion." However, one might plausibly argue that it does not protect them, by itself, from charges of "marital status" discrimination. The phrase "of a particular religion" is inherently ambiguous. No Christian would argue that one must be sinless to be a Christian; in other words, no Christian could plausibly maintain that a person's commission of sin always means that the person is no long "of" the "particular religion" of Christianity. A foundation of Christianity is that all are sinful (and thus in need to Christ's atonement for their sins on the Cross).

That being said, adverse action against an employee who procures a biblically unjustified divorce should not be considered "marital status" discrimination in the first place. Wheaton was concerned about Professor Gramm not because he was single, but rather because he was divorcing (without sharing any information that would provide the college a basis for determining whether the divorce was biblically justified).

In any event, the Constitution (and probably Illinois' Religious Freedom Restoration Act) provides employers like Wheaton a defense to any charge of "marital status" discrimination in circumstances like these.