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Sexual orientation and religion: conflict in the workplace?

The Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and religion.  However, nonprofit religious organizations and schools are generally exempt from the Minnesota Human Rights Act’s sexual orientation provisions.  But the Minnesota Human Rights Act also states that in such cases, employees who are involved in “secular business activities unrelated to the employer's religious or educational mission” would still remain protected. (Minn. Stat. 363A.26(2)). Additionally, religious entities which operate on a for-profit basis can discriminate in employment on the basis of sexual orientation, but only in the rare instance that a particular sexual orientation is a "bona fide occupational qualification" for the position in question. (Minn. Stat. 363A.20, subd.2).

In 2004, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued two seemingly contradictory opinions attempting to address the application of the Minnesota Human Rights Act’s "sexual orientation" provisions within the context of a religious employer.

In Egan v. Hamline United Methodist Church (April 13, 2004), the court ruled that a church’s dismissed choir director could not file a sexual orientation discrimination claim because his role was essentially ecclesiastical in nature, and therefore was not a “secular business activity unrelated to the church's religious mission.” The court's decision was based on the nature of the employee’s specific job.

Months later, a the court held in Thorson v. Billy Graham Evangelical Association (October 19, 2004) that a long-time mail room employee at the association also could not file a sexual orientation discrimination claim over her dismissal when her employer learned she was a lesbian. This time, the court looked to the nature of the employer, not that of the employee’s job. Holding that the Billy Graham Evangelical Association was a pervasively religious employer, the court concluded that no "secular business activity" occurred there and that no employee there would be protected from sexual orientation discrimination.

Despite two opportunities for the Minnesota Court of Appeals to address the issue, it remains an open question about whether the proverbial janitor at a church may (Thorson) or may not (Egan) be fired because of sexual orientation.

This information is not intended to constitute legal advice; if you have questions about your employment situation, you should contact an attorney familiar with employment issues. For more information, contact the OutFront Minnesota Legal Program at legal@outfront.org.