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Sara Henry v. Red Hill Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tustin

December 9, 2011

SARA HENRY, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
RED HILL EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH OF TUSTIN, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



Appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court of Orange County, Derek W. Hunt, Judge. Affirmed. (Super. Ct. No. 30-2009-00124634)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Moore, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Plaintiff Sara Henry sued Red Hill Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tustin (sometimes the church) for wrongful termination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (Gov. Code,*fn1 § 12900 et seq. (the FEHA)) and for wrongful termination in violation of public policy based upon her termination from the Red Hill Lutheran School (the school) for living with her boyfriend and raising their child together without being married. The trial was bifurcated with the church's defenses to be tried first to the court. The court held the ministerial exception applied and entered judgment in favor of the church. We affirm and hold: (1) Henry's claim of wrongful termination under the FEHA is barred because the church does not qualify as an "employer" under the FEHA; (2) Henry's employment was terminated for religious reasons for which the church and school are exempt under title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Title VII)); and additionally, (3) her claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy is barred by the ministerial exception.

I

FACTS

The Red Hill Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tustin was incorporated in California in 1957. It was formed for nonprofit religious purposes and is tax exempt. The school is part of the church's ministry and does not exist as a separate legal entity. The school is on church property and is adjacent to the church.

Henry was an at-will employee of the church. She taught preschool children at the school from August 2002, until her employment was terminated in May 2009. She started as a preschool teacher and became the director of the preschool in 2003. She continued teaching a preschool class in addition to her duties as director.

The school had five preschool classes and an average attendance of 105 preschoolers a day. The preschoolers had to be at least three years old by September 1, and no older than five years and nine months. The school also had kindergarten through eighth grades.

Before each school year Henry was provided with a document setting forth the professional expectations for the teachers. She knew she was to serve as a Christian role model to the students and their parents, both in and out of school. Prior to the 2008-2009 school year, Henry and the school's principal, Cindy Jordan, signed a document entitled "Ministry Commitment." In that document Henry acknowledged she was an "at-will" employee. Other than in the title of the document, the word ministry is used three times in the document. "We recognize and affirm the ministry of teaching as a God-ordained vocation for you. We rejoice that God has brought you to us as a 'fellow-laborer' in this ministry." And on the second page: "We, at Red Hill Lutheran Church and School, pledge our prayer, support, and assistance to you as you minister to our students and families."

Henry knew the school was "Bible-based." Although teachers were not required to be Lutheran -- Henry is Catholic -- teachers were required to be practicing Christians "involved in a church-based setting on a regular basis." The parents of students did not have to be Lutherans, but they too had to be practicing Christians.

As director of the preschool, Henry made the classroom arrangements, helped hire teachers, and scheduled their hours and classroom assignments. She also processed the applications for incoming students and made sure the school complied with state mandates. Every week she gave a tour of the preschool to parents of prospective students. During the tour Henry talked to the parents about the "Christian-based, Bible-based values of the school." She wanted the parents to understand that if they sent their children to the school, they could expect their children to receive a "Christian education" and Bible-based "Christian values."

Every week the teachers participated in devotions. They read from a "devotional-type book," took prayer requests from the group, and prayed for each other.

As a teacher, Henry taught religion to the preschoolers as a part of the regular curriculum. She spoke to the children about Jesus on a daily basis. Two or three times a week she taught a Bible story in conjunction with the theme being taught that week. According to Henry, the Christian themes she introduced related to Christianity in general and "not specifically to Lutheran doctrine or teachings." On occasion when the need to discipline a child arose, Henry would "bring in some theme from a Bible story or a teaching of Christianity."

Every Wednesday the preschool classes and their teachers attended chapel for about half an hour. Henry was in charge of the chapel service three to four times a school year. The responsibility of reading a Bible story or performing some other act of religious teaching during chapel rotated among the teachers. Henry led her class in prayer each day: at the beginning of each day, before each meal, and at the end of each day. Henry estimated she spent one hour a week teaching religion, another hour leading the children in prayer, and the remainder of the time she spent teaching -- other than those times she was in charge of the chapel service -- was spent on "secular subjects, including such things as: ...


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