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Judge: Catholic Relief Services liable for gender bias, denial of same-sex benefits

Catholic Relief Services violated federal laws against sex discrimination in employment and pay when the Baltimore-based agency withdrew health insurance coverage from a gay employee’s same-sex spouse, a federal judge ruled last week.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake rejected CRS’ argument that the laws did not apply to its operations because of statutory exemptions for religious-based organizations exercising their firmly held beliefs, such as opposition to same-sex marriage.

Blake said the exemptions do not apply because the employee’s job as a data analyst was not part of the CRS religious mission and secular jobs are protected by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1963 Equal Pay Act.

“CRS insists that any judicial inquiry into this case inevitably requires an inquiry into matters of Catholic faith and doctrine,” wrote Blake, who sits in the Baltimore federal courthouse.

“This is not so; this case concerns a social service organization’s employment benefit decisions regarding a data analyst and does not involve CRS’s spiritual or ministerial functions,” Blake added in her memorandum opinion. “This court need not question the sincerity or content of CRS’s religious beliefs to assess the applicability of neutral and generally applicable statutes.”

Blake rendered her decision in granting summary judgment for the employee – identified in court papers as “John Doe” — on his federal claims. Blake also granted summary judgment on Doe’s claim that CRS violated the Maryland Equal Pay for Equal Work Act’s prohibition on sex discrimination.

“We are thrilled with the court’s decision, which reaffirms the longstanding legal principle that an employer cannot use religion as an excuse to discriminate against its employees based on their sexual orientation,” Shannon Leary, an attorney for Doe, said in a statement. “Someone’s gender or whom they love has no place in employment decisions.”

Leary is with Gilbert Employment Law PC in Silver Spring. Doe is also represented by attorneys from Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore.

CRS said in a statement Tuesday that “we have studied the opinion and are considering our options going forward.” CRS is represented by attorneys at Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP in Baltimore.

Doe alleged in his complaint that he was told when offered the job in mid-2016 that CRS’s insurance plan provides health coverage for employees and their spouses regardless of sex. But in November 2016, CRS told Doe that insurance was provided to his husband by mistake because same-sex spouses are not covered.

Doe said he met with CRS management various times over the next eight months seeking to preserve the spousal health benefit.

Insurance benefits for Doe’s husband were ended on Oct. 1, 2017, a time during which the spouse was having extensive and expensive dental work performed, the complaint added.

CRS did not dispute that it revoked Doe’s spousal health insurance because he was married to a man, claiming its action was protected by the religious organization exemptions.

In ruling for Doe, Blake noted that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination in employment also applies to sexual-orientation bias, which she said was at the heart of CRS’s revocation of health insurance coverage.

Blake said Title VII’s exemption for religious organizations in Section 702(a) enables them to discriminate against members of other religions in their hiring decisions but does not provide a blanket protection against bias based on the law’s other protected classifications, including sex, sexual orientation and race.

“A plain reading of Section 702(a) reveals Congress’s intent to protect religious organizations seeking to employ co-religionists, but the reading urged by CRS would cause a relatively narrowly written exception to swallow up all of Title VII, effectively exempting religious organizations wholesale,” Blake wrote. “Had Congress wished to exempt religious organizations in this manner, it could have done so, but it plainly did not.”

With regard to the federal and state equal pay acts, Blake said CRS has conceded Doe’s claim that CRS “provides dependent benefits for the male spouses of female employees who perform work of similar skill and effort, hold similar responsibilities, and share a common core of tasks with Doe, a male employee with a male spouse” who is nevertheless denied the same dependent benefits.

“A woman married to a man would not have lost spousal health insurance benefits as Doe did,” Blake wrote. “When CRS discriminates against a gay employee like Doe, it necessarily and intentionally discriminates against that employee in part because of sex.”

Blake said she will need help from Maryland’s top court before ruling on Doe’s claim that CRS violated the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act. The judge said she will ask the Court of Appeals whether the MFEPA’s religious organization exemption applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation.

With regard to damages, Blake said, it will be up to a jury to determine the compensation owed to Doe for his husband’s uninsured dental expenses as well as for Doe’s mental anguish.

But Doe will not be entitled to punitive damages, given CRS’s good-faith argument regarding a religious exemption to the federal laws and CRS’ efforts to reach a settlement with him, Blake added.

When the lawsuit was filed in 2020, Blake accepted Doe’s request – unopposed by CRS — that he be permitted to use the popular pseudonym in his court filings. Blake agreed that Doe has a “strong” interest in his “privacy in a matter of sensitive and highly personal nature.”

“Although in recent years societal attitudes have become more accepting of the LGBTQ community, prejudice persists, and Doe’s wish to keep his true name off public filings in a case of this subject matter is a reasonable one,” Blake wrote. “The court finds that denying public access only to Doe’s identity is narrowly tailored to balance the right of access with Doe’s strong privacy interest.”

The case is docketed in the U.S. District Court as John Doe v. Catholic Relief Services, No. 20-1815-CCB.