U.S. court affirms church's right to fire and hire employees based on religious beliefs

Colleen Simon (left) smiles as her wife Donna Simon, a female pastor at a Kansas City Lutheran church, looks at her at their home in Kansas City, Missouri on July 16, 2014.Reuters

A Missouri court has issued a ruling backing a Catholic diocese's decision to fire employees because of violating religious beliefs.

The court said the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph had the right to fire Colleen Simon as director for social ministries at St. Francis Xavier Parish in May 2014 after she was featured in the Kansas City Star's 816 magazine with her legal wife.

"Churches should have the right to hire and fire people based on how consistently they live out their religious beliefs. If an employee is undermining or publicly opposing the church's teaching, the church is within its constitutional rights to terminate employment," said Jeremiah Galus, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), according to CNA.

He said the decision "rightly preserves the integrity of churches and religious institutions."

"If churches are forced to employ people who do not follow their religious teachings, they will no longer be able to minister consistently or freely in accordance with their faith," he added.

The diocese said Simon's same-sex marriage was in conflict with the Catholic Church's teaching and that she could no longer continue her job.

Simon filed a lawsuit two months later and said the diocese knew that she was a lesbian before they hired her in 2013.

She also said the diocese misled her into believing that her sexual orientation would not affect her job.

But a brief filed by ADF on behalf of the diocese showed that Simon was "fully aware that same-sex conduct could be an issue."

"Having worked in various Diocese churches, she would have been aware of the 'Church laws, discipline, and teaching, and the diocesan Policy on Ethics and Integrity in Ministry' to which the Diocese adhered," the brief read.

The Jackson County Circuit Court dismissed Simon's fraud claim last month and ruled that courts must respect the First Amendment of churches and are not allowed to interfere with church practices and doctrine.

"The First Amendment does not preclude the court's involvement in church disputes where the issue is one which deals purely with a religiously neutral civil law. Courts may exercise jurisdiction in disputes having no issues of religious doctrine, policy and practice so long as courts utilize a neutral principles-of-law approach and judges do not become entangled in questions which are essentially religious," the decision states.

According to Galus, "This decision reaffirms a principle that the U.S. Supreme Court already established in Hosanna-Tabor, where the court unanimously ruled that federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious organizations regarding the hiring of religious leaders."

Travis Weber, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, said the ruling shows that "it is impermissible for the government to interfere in religious affairs. If it did, we would have an authoritarian state that would abolish religious freedom."