For Immediate Release
(Washington, D.C., July 21, 2009) Religious school teachers who are fired over their age should be protected by anti-discrimination laws, said the American Humanist Association today in response to a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling. In a 4-3 decision the state court ruled that Wendy Ostlund, who was 53 at the time she was laid-off, could not make a discrimination claim under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act because it would interfere with Coulee Catholic Schools’ (now Aquinas Catholic Schools) right to religious freedom.
“There should be no double standard in favor of religious groups, who should be required follow the same anti-discrimination rules that apply to everyone else,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “There are rare exceptions where anti-discrimination rules inherently interfere with a religious mission, such as barring Catholic institutions from only hiring other Catholics for ministerial positions, and exemptions are necessary in those cases. But I fail to see how something like a school teacher’s age could singularly prevent her from teaching religion classes effectively.”
The court overturned decisions of an administrative law judge, a trial court and an appeals court, who all argued that according to a long-standing legal test Ostlund was protected by anti-discrimination laws because her position was primarily secular rather than ministerial. Instead, the state court promulgated a new test, in which all employees important to a religious mission would be exempted from protection against discriminatory firing, such as for age, gender, or race. Justice Michael Gableman said that such exemptions were necessary to protect religious freedom.
“While religious freedom is a preeminent American right, it shouldn’t protect religious groups from engaging in blatantly unfair practices that we rightly prohibit businesses from engaging in,” concluded Speckhardt. “The Wisconsin Supreme Court has misinterpreted the spirit of the First Amendment to carve out a special right for religious groups to discriminate against people for no reason other than that they don’t like them. Business leaders and educators should be appalled that Aquinas Catholic Schools sees itself as above the law that all other businesses in Wisconsin must adhere to.”
The American Humanist Association (www.americanhumanist.org) advocates for the rights and viewpoints of humanists. Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., its work is extended through more than 100 local chapters and affiliates across the United States.
Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.
For more information contact:
Karen Frantz, Communications and Policy Manager
American Humanist Association