Monday, June 21, 2004
Judge Told to Bifurcate Religious Immunity Issue in Suit Over Firing
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An Orange Superior Court judge hearing the claim of a married couple that they were wrongly fired from teaching jobs at a Christian university because they were suspected of a premarital affair should first try the issue of whether the school enjoys a religious immunity, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
Writing for Div. Three, Presiding Justice David G. Sills said Judge Gregory H. Lewis properly denied summary judgment to Hope University International.
Curtis Rouanzoin and Lisa Riggs, both of whom taught in the school’s Marriage and Family Therapy Department, were fired soon after their marriage. The two became engaged in the same month Rouanzoin’s divorce from his wife of 27 years became final.
School officials said it would be inappropriate for a married couple to make up an entire department, but also claimed there was a perception the pair had been romantically involved while Rouanzoin was still married.
The institution, which is affiliated with the Church of Christ, requires its faculty to obey a Biblical injunction to “abstain from all appearance of evil.”
Sills said Lewis was right to reject the university’s claim it was entitled to summary judgment based on the “ministerial exception” recognized in Schmoll v. Chapman University (1999) 70 Cal.App.4th 1434. Schmoll held a trial court was precluded from inquiring into the merits of a decision to discharge a chaplain.
Since Rouanzoin and Riggs were not ordained and taught a subject which is “not necessarily religious,” Sills said, the school could not establish as a matter of law that the ministerial exception applied to them. But given the close connection between the school’s mission and the task of “teaching students in the marriage and family therapy program to become Christian therapists,” it was possible the employer could establish the applicability of the exception at trial, the justice added.
Citing the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 1991 decision in Little v. Wuerl, 929 F.2d 944, Sills said Lewis should bifurcate that issue and try it before the rest of the case to satisfy the “constitutional need to avoid religious entanglement.”
“Because of the very nature of the exception, it entails an immunity on the part of a religious institution from the intrusive examination into religious doctrine inherent in the suit….The very process of review itself threatens to entangle the court in a sectarian controversy.”
Sills said Lewis was also right to deny summary judgment to the extent Hope sought it based on a claim the school would face insuperable difficulties in managing a department consisting of a married couple.
“In the present case, there is nothing about two professors working in the same department which so overarchingly implicates ‘problems of supervision, safety, security or morale’ that we could say summary judgment is appropriate,” Sills said, adding:
“[I]f Hope can establish that it had no reasonable alternative in the wake of the Rouanzoin-Riggs marriage but to fire one or both of them, it can present that evidence at trial.”
But he cautioned that to whatever extent Rouanzoin and Riggs were contending they were discharged because of an unreasonable perception they were having an affair prior to their marriage, that did not constitute a cognizable claim under laws barring discrimination on the basis of marriage.
“According to Hope, the school fired Riggs and Rouanzoin primarily because of a perception that the two had carried out an extra-marital affair and had been dishonest about it,” the justice observed. “Now, that perception might not be objectively reasonable as secular courts must look at it, and it might not be supported by substantial evidence.But it is not a marital status discrimination claim, it is substantively a contract claim (specifically a contract claim not to be fired without objectively reasonable cause).”
Lewis did err, Sills said, in refusing to consider Hope’s alternative motion for summary adjudication solely because it was not organized by cause of action. No rule requires that summary adjudication motions follow that format, he said.
Justices William F. Rylaarsdam and Raymond Ikola concurred.
The case is Hope International University v. Superior Court (Rouanzoin), G032967.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company