Following a discrimination case filed by a former employee, a Christian college has petitioned a federal appeals court to protect its religious beliefs regarding men and women in leadership.
Moody Bible Institute is a Christian college and seminary in Chicago, Illinois, founded by evangelist Dwight L. Moody in 1886. The college states on its website that it offers students a “Bible-focused education” and “practical ministry training,” and the school equips students to serve as representatives of the Christian faith.
On Monday, the Christian college filed an opening brief with the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit with support from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Christian Poland of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is also representing Moody Bible.
The brief asked the court to consider whether the federal judiciary should interfere with internal religious disputes and if the former employee’s claims are barred by “the church autonomy doctrine” and “Title VII’s religious exemption.”
Becket stated Tuesday that oral arguments will likely the scheduled for sometime this winter or spring 2024.
Mark Jobe, president of Moody Bible Institute, emphasized in a statement how the college has trained and helped form men and women of faith for over 130 years.
“This mission is rooted in Christ’s command to announce the good news to all people, and it has served as the bedrock of Moody since our founding,” he said.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Daniel Blomberg, vice president and senior counsel for Becket, explained that Moody Bible requires staff to adhere to its core statement of faith. One of those beliefs is that both men and women are called to religious ministry; however, the church office of pastor is reserved for men.
As Blomberg noted, Janay Garrick was aware of the school’s position when she joined Moody’s faculty, and she signed a yearly application stating that she supported the college’s views, as Moody requires its staff to affirm its beliefs each year.
However, Garrick’s conduct while working at the school suggested that she did not share Moody’s viewpoints. In October 2015 and January 2016, two female students approached Garrick about entering Moody’s Pastoral Ministry Program, which is only open to men. The former Moody employee assisted one of the students in filing a Title IX complaint against the college.
According to the lawsuit, Garrick created the “Respect for Women Personally and Ministerially” group in 2015, where she launched the Title IX complaint and stated that barring women from the pastoral ministry program was discriminatory.
The school’s faculty eventually met with Garrick in April 2017, expressing concern about whether she supported Moody’s doctrinal statement. Following the meeting, the college decided not to renew Garrick’s contract for the coming year.
Garrick filed a lawsuit in January 2018, which a district court initially dismissed, as the former faculty member claims arose from a disagreement she had with Moody’s beliefs about women in ministry, according to Blomberg.
The court dismissed the suit to avoid interfering with an internal religious dispute; however, it allowed Garrick to amend her complaint and remove any references to religion.
While the former Moody employee refiled the complaint, Blomberg noted that most of the references to religion remained, as the complaint indicates that the dispute is due to a religious disagreement about whether women can serve as church leaders.
In November 2021, however, the district court decided that the case could proceed to determine if Moody had discriminated on the basis of sex.
Blomberg explained to CP that this prompted the appeal to the Seventh Circuit, asking it to intervene. While the case was halted for a while due to a long procedural process, the attorney confirmed that it has been reinstated and is moving forward.
“And basically, the issue is, can federal courts intervene and interfere in internal religious decisions about the ordination of religious leadership?” he asked.
The attorney cited the case of Christian Legal Society v. Walker, which also dealt with the issue of a religious group having to potentially keep a staff member that rejects the ministry’s beliefs and violates the organization’s right to exist.
He also cited Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, a Supreme Court case that recognized the First Amendment’s religious clauses provide religious groups with special solicitude, allowing them to choose the individuals who will carry out their mission.
“And at that time, the EEOC, which is the federal agency charged with enforcing Title VII, among other laws, admitted to the court: It said, listen, Title VII could not be used to force the Catholic Church to have to reject its beliefs in the male priesthood or to require an Orthodox Jewish seminary to ordain women,” Blomberg said. “Obviously, the First Amendment wouldn’t allow that.”
“Well, that’s exactly the case we’re facing today, and a federal court, unfortunately, has said that’s not so obvious anymore, and we’re going to force you to go through years of litigation just to vindicate what a decade ago before a unanimous Supreme Court was an obvious First Amendment right,” he continued.
The senior counsel for Becket also stated that the outcome of the case could have “massive implications” for religious colleges and their ability to operate according to their belief systems.
He warned that if a claimant can take what a court has already recognized to be a “religious dispute” and bring the same religious institution before the court after changing a few words of the complaint – forcing the institution to spend thousands of dollars and go through years of litigation just to achieve the same result – then that “empties the First Amendment and federal civil rights law of a lot of its religious freedom protections.”
“A lot of religious institutions can’t afford that,” Blomberg said. “They can’t afford the process of going through that. And if it’s so easy to evade the First Amendment, then the First Amendment is going to lose a lot of its meaning.”