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Sex, religion and workplace discrimination in Minnesota

Both Minnesota and federal laws prohibit many kinds of employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin and certain other factors, but discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a trickier issue. Minnesota's Human Rights Act lists discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation among its prohibited types of workplace discrimination, but the U.S. Civil Rights Act does not. The picture gets even more complicated when religious institutions are involved in discrimination.

Take, for instance, two longtime teachers at a Minnesota Catholic High School who recently lost their jobs after revelations that they were gay. The school's president resigned his position in July after he reportedly told school officials that he was in a committed relationship with another man. This month, a woman who had taught at the school for 18 years said she was fired after unexpectedly announcing at a school meeting that she is in a long-time relationship with another woman and is very happy. She said the day after the meeting, officials called her into her office and gave her a choice between resigning and being fired. She said she refused to resign and was fired.

The woman told reporters afterwards that, like all employees of the school, she had signed a document when she took the job in which she agreed to not speak against the Catholic Church or its teachings. The Catholic Church teaches against homosexuality, and the woman said that the school would probably argue that her statement about being in a same-sex relationship violated her agreement to not speak against the church.

Agreements such as this one are just part of what make these cases so difficult. There are also constitutional issues at play: The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution insists on a separation between church and state, and so courts are reluctant to enforce anti-discrimination laws against religious institutions when church leaders argue that there is a religious underpinning to their discrimination.

However, this does not mean that religious institutions can always get away with this kind of discrimination. A teacher at a Catholic school who lost her job after she and her same-sex partner practiced in vitro fertilization won an anti-discrimination case earlier this year.

Every case is different, and there may be a way to stand up against discrimination even when it looks difficult or impossible. Minnesota residents who have been the victims of discrimination at work should get help understanding how the law applies to them and their unique set of circumstances.

Source: MinnPost, "Fired after she came out to colleagues, Totino-Grace teacher leaves dissonance and silence behind," Jim Walsh, Sept. 11, 2013

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