Back in 2015, Coty Richardson, above, was sacked by administrators at a small evangelical Christian college in Oregon after she refused their demand to marry or dump her partner.
But this week a federal judge ruled that Northwest Christian University, a private, 700-student school in Eugene, had illegally discriminated against Richardson, who had been an assistant professor teaching biomechanics, human kinetics, nutrition and other science courses. She had been on the faculty since 2011.
Judge Ann Aiken wrote in her 33-page opinion and order:
This is the unusual employment discrimination case in which the facts are largely undisputed. At its heart, this lawsuit is about what happens when an employment policy based on an employer’s sincerely held religious belief conflicts with an employee’s rights under federal and state discrimination laws.
In late July 2015, Northwest Christian administrators fired Richardson via a letter from Dennis Lindsay, the Vice President for Academic Affairs. According to the lawsuit, the letter stated that:
Sexual relations outside of marriage is contrary to the university’s core values.
In a previous missive, Lindsay explained that “having a child out of wedlock while still continuing a relationship with the father” sets “a bad example” for the fully grown, adult students who attend Northwest Christian.
Richardson, now 37, informed officials at Northwest Christian of her pregnancy in the spring of 2015.
School officials told her she had to marry the father right away or else dump the unborn child’s father and declare the pregnancy an error, the lawsuit contended.
Richardson, already a mother of two, and the unidentified boyfriend had been together for 12 years at the time.
She chose neither alternative offered by school officials, she said. Instead, she asked for personal privacy.
When she filed her lawsuit, Richardson alleged that Northwest Christian has not fired male employees who have fathered children out of wedlock.
The summary judgment in Richardson’s favour on the marital status discrimination claim rejects Northwest Christian’s claim that the school is immune to employment discrimination claims. In a nutshell, the court ruled, Northwest Christian cannot discriminate any more than any other institution unless the hiring and firing is specifically related to ministers.
Judge Aiken decreed:
First, plaintiff’s title, assistant professor of exercise science, was secular. Second, plaintiff did not undergo any specialised religious training before assuming her position. Third, although there is ample evidence plaintiff held herself out as a Christian, there is no evidence she held herself out as a minister.
Richardson, Aiken noted:
Was expected to integrate her Christianity into her teaching and demonstrate a maturing Christian faith. But any religious function was wholly secondary to her secular role.
The judge ruled that a jury will have to decide several of Richardson’s other claims against Northwest Christian. There will also be a trial over damages. Richardson originally sought $650,000 for lost wages and for suffering discrimination.
The ex-professor holds a master’s degree from A T Still University, an osteopathic medical school in Missouri, and a bachelor’s degree from Oregon State University.
After she was fired, she had difficulty finding work commensurate with her education.
Northwest Christian University President Joseph Womack told Inside Higher Ed that the school does not yet have a public comment concerning the summary judgment decision.
Womack says on the college website:
I believe the best of what we do is manifest through a collegiate atmosphere that is transformative in experience, rigorous in study, and reverent in posture; an environment where students are encouraged to passionately seek God’s call on their lives and endowed with the knowledge, experiences, skills, and character to answer that call successfully.
Daniel Kalish, Richardson’s lawyer, suggested to Inside Higher Ed that the judge’s ruling means that religious schools “don’t get a free pass” to engage in employment discrimination.
According to the Northwest Christian student handbook:
The university expects that non-married students will not engage in sexual intercourse.
Spending the night in a dorm room inhabited by a member of the opposite sex is not allowed. Additionally, alcohol and tobacco are forbidden on campus. “Mooning, ‘streaking’ and public urination” are verboten. “Prolonged displays of physical affection” are “not considered appropriate.” And absolutely no pornography of any kind.
The law firm representing Richardson has created a petition asking Northwest Christian University to reinstate Richardson as a professor. It says:
Tell NCU it’s NOT OK to fire a woman for being pregnant!