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Fourth Circuit Says Employment Decision Based on Conservative Political Views Not Religious Discrimination

    Client Alerts
  • April 22, 2011

"Conservative Christians" may espouse positions on public issues, such as civil rights, sex, feminism and homosexuality, that are motivated by their religious beliefs. When an employer allegedly makes employment decisions based on these political positions, is it discrimination against the employee due to his or her religion? Last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) said that in order to prove religious discrimination, the employee must show more than objections to political views.

In Adams v. The Trustees of the University of North Carolina - Wilmington, the plaintiff was a UNC-W professor who was denied tenure. He filed suit under Title VII and the First Amendment, alleging that the rejection was based on his widely known views and activities on behalf of Conservative Christian political causes. The district court granted summary judgment for the university on all claims, and the professor appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the Title VII religious discrimination claims. The court noted that alleged bias on the part of the tenure committee due to objections over the plaintiff's political views was not the same as religious discrimination. He did not introduce any evidence that the decision was based on religion alone. For example, other Christians were granted tenure by UNC-W.  Speculation about motivation was not enough to allow the claim to go to the jury. The Fourth Circuit refused to accept the plaintiff's argument that his political views were so tied to his religious beliefs that objections to his positions on public policy issues were equivalent to religious discrimination.

The court reversed summary judgment on the plaintiff's First Amendment claims involving academic freedom and free speech rights. However, non-public employers are not subject to these restrictions. UNC-W was very deliberate during the tenure process and its characterization of the reasons for the denial. Employers in similar situations should follow this model and make sure that employees known for holding controversial religious or political positions are evaluated based on legitimate business circumstances.