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State Agency Wrestles With Religious Bodies’ Bias Rule Exemptions

Times Religion Writer

Should a California state agency deal with complaints of job discrimination from a janitor, mathematics teacher or secretary employed by a religious organization? Or should religious bodies continue to be exempt from laws regulating racial, sexual and other biases on the grounds of church-state separation?

The state Fair Employment and Housing Commission heard conflicting opinions on the question Thursday during the first of two hearings at the State Office Building in Los Angeles.

The commission is proposing a repeal of sections of its regulation concerning religious employers. While acknowledging that a minister or a rabbi should be of the same religious denomination as his or her employer, Chairman Cruz F. Sandoval and other commissioners asked those who testified in the hearing whether they think that anti-discrimination laws could be applied to jobs that appear to be secular in function without violating religious freedom.

‘Custodian Has Ministry’

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Arguing for the right to hire only evangelical Christians at an evangelical Christian school, Principal Kenneth Townsend of Brethren Elementary School in Whittier said, “Even a custodian has a ministry on the campus by his very life style and the answers he gives to questions.”

Some of the 150 persons attending the hearing applauded when conservative Protestant spokesmen such as Townsend objected to any government scrutiny arising from job discrimination charges. They maintained, for example, that employees who engaged in homosexual or premarital sexual activities would be unacceptable role models in their faith communities.

“Please do not underestimate the resolve of the Christian community on this matter,” warned Paul A. Kienel, executive director of Christian Schools International, which has 2,238 affiliated schools.

On the other hand, Rabbi Lennard Thal of Los Angeles, regional director for Reform Judaism congregations, said his organization “completely supports” repeal of the state regulation’s sections exempting religious groups from employment guidelines.

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Draws Boos, Groans

The rabbi drew boos and groans from the audience when he said that rabbinical tradition has said that God’s punishment of the biblical town of Sodom was not for homosexual activities, but for the rich placing an unfair tax burden on the poor under the cloak of legality.

Thal said a blanket religious exemption ought not to hide spiritual groups from discrimination laws. “Our organizations ought to be in the lead in fighting discrimination,” he said.

In response to Commissioner Charles Poochigian’s question about whether Orthodox Judaism could be challenged by a woman who wanted to be a teacher or a rabbi, Thal said, “If that’s the price we have to pay . . . so be it.”

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Repeal was also favored by attorney Phil Trevino, testifying for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Considered Revision

Commission officials said they have considered narrowing the exemption of religious organizations since a lawsuit was filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union. The suit, on behalf of two taxpayers, argues that the existing law unconstitutionally permits religious organizations to discriminate, not just on religious, but on all other grounds, regardless of what the job is. Requests for a summary judgment in that Los Angeles Superior Court case were recently taken under advisement by the judge.

Aside from that suit, however, the commission decided last summer in a sex discrimination complaint at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, that laws forbidding job discrimination at certain charitable institutions, even if church-related, were applicable.

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Commission Chairman Sandoval said, “We decided that a narrow rather than a complete exemption made sense.” The second of the two hearings on the proposed repeal is scheduled for June 13 in Sacramento.


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