Bradenton Employment Case Tests Discrimination Protections

Todays News

Image from Pixabay

A termination dispute at a Bradenton church could test the limits of discrimination protections and the limits of religious exemptions. Christie Leonard, a former video editor for Gospel Crusade, said she lost her job for living with her best friend amid rumors of a same-sex romantic relationship, even though none existed.

Church leaders have denied that’s why Leonard was let go. But a legal challenge will test how the courts apply two recent Supreme Court rulings.

Leonard said she worked at the church roughly 15 years, starting as an intern then working part-time  as a video editor at the conference center there and eventually going full-time while picking up accounting duties. She also developed a close friendship with a woman at a time when both her and Leonard’s marriages were facing trouble. The friend invited Leonard to video a missionary trip to Africa, and Leonard said the two were allowed to go together only on the condition they not socialize for 30 days ahead of time. Still, when the two returned her friend was promptly fired.

“I was told, ‘We want to keep you on,'” Leonard said, “but you can’t live with that woman.”

It seemed a demand outside the auspices of an employer. At first she complied, but as their marriages broke apart, the two women did end up living with one another. Leonard said when she told the church pastor she was fired too. “It was almost an act of rebellion to let her stay with me, to say this is an unfair requirement,” she said.

Kevin Sanderson, Leonard’s attorney, believes it’s not only unfair but unconstitutional. The Supreme Court last year ruled civil rights protections shied from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and Sanderson argues that covers those perceived as LGBTQ. Considering men in the church were making allegations and only women were punished, he said there’s a case that this was discrimination on the basis of sex.

Sunu Chandy, legal director for the National Women’s Law Center that houses the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, in fact sees the case as a potential landmark civil rights case. She said a ruling will not only test what those discrimination provisions intend but also test religious exemptions. They exist for those considered ministers, which the church early on in the complaint process said include Leonard’s accounting and video editing roles. Chandy fears if that legal interpretation is allowed to stand, it will erase all discrimination claims for any religious organization like charities and even some hospitals.

“They could define this more broadly, which makes us fear for anyone who works for any religiously affiliates employers,” Chandy said.

Of note, the church itself now says job performance was the chief concern in firing Leonard, something she said makes no sense as the organization months later asked her to do one-off work.

Regardless, the outcome of Leonard fighting the termination could have ramifications throughout Florida for employers and employees.

 

Image from Pixabay

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