A U.S. judge has ruled that Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the U.S. bishops’ international humanitarian agency, violated multiple laws when the organization discriminated against an employee in a same-gender marriage by withholding health insurance from his husband.
In mid-2016, an employee, referred to as John Doe in the legal records, was told by CRS that his husband could get health insurance coverage through CRS’ spousal benefits program, according to the legal documents. In November 2016, “CRS reached out to him and said oh, that was a mistake. We don’t cover same-sex spouses” according to Eve Hill, one of the lawyers representing Doe.
CRS initially gave Doe’s husband health insurance, but after eight months of negotiations between Doe and CRS management “insurance benefits for Doe’s husband were ended on Oct. 1, 2017, a time during which the husband was having extensive and expensive dental work performed,” reported The Daily Record. CRS did not deny that they revoked Doe’s husband’s insurance because they were a married gay couple.
In 2018, Doe filed a complaint with the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, which followed with Doe filing a lawsuit in 2020. WYPR News reported on a recent development:
“Last week, Judge Catherine Blake at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore ruled in Doe’s favor. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, Blake wrote in her opinion that CRS’s refusal to insure Doe’s husband amounts to discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. CRS also violated the federal Equal Pay Act and the Maryland Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, Blake wrote.”
The only recorded exemption for religious organizations as stated by Title VII can be found in section 702(A) which allows religious organizations to discriminate against those who follow other religions in an effort to employ co-religionists. Blake notes, though, that it “does not provide a blanket protection against bias based on the law’s other protected classifications, including sex, sexual orientation and race.” She also adds, “Had Congress wished to exempt religious organizations in this manner, it could have done so, but it plainly did not”.
In legal filings, CRS’ lawyers argued that “as a religious organization, it does not have to provide spousal benefits to someone the Catholic Church does not recognize as a spouse. Providing spousal benefits to a same-sex spouse would ‘substantially burden its exercise of religion,’ in violation of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” But Marley Weiss, an employment law specialist at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, commented on this argument for WYPR News:
“‘They bring in the argument that Title VII doesn’t apply to them at all, because they’re a church-related entity, or because the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in some way, would exempt them from Title VII and the Equal Pay Act. These arguments are problematic because they don’t align either with how the courts have interpreted the laws, or with a plain reading of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.'”
Following Doe’s winning court case, Doe continues to work at CRS and in an interview recounted by WYPR News said his goal was not compensation. Instead, Doe hoped “that CRS would equally provide health benefits to same-sex spouses, the same they do opposite sex spouses, that’s the ultimate goal.” He commented:
“‘There are hundreds and thousands of people across the country in my situation who haven’t been given the incredible opportunity to fight back against the discrimination. . .We’re young. We’re healthy. There are people who are losing their insurance who are sick.'”
This incident is not the first time that CRS has made life harder for an employee who is in a same-gender marriage. In 2015, a right-wing organization publicly released the marriage license of CRS’s former vice president, Rick Estridge. Despite Estridge dedicating 16 years to the organization, CRS terminated him.
Robert Shine, associate director of New Ways Ministry, commented on the ruling:
“LGBTQ+ employees who face discrimination by a Catholic employer rarely win in court. We hope the court’s ruling in this CRS case signals at least a small for greater weight being given to enforcing non-discrimination protections. Beyond legal outcomes, Catholic Relief Services should, on its own initiative, abide internally by the same principles of Catholic Social Teaching it practices externally.”
—Anushah Sajwani (she/her), August 19, 2022