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Teacher's workplace discrimination claim brings up tricky issues

Minneapolis residents may have read about the recent case of a gay teacher who was fired from her job at a Catholic school after her sexual orientation was revealed mother's obituary. The case raises some of the most unsettled issues in the law of employment discrimination.

The 57-year-old woman said she was fired after an anonymous letter was sent to school officials. The letter, purportedly written by the parent of one of the teacher's students, referred to a published obituary about the teacher's mother and noted that the obituary referred to a woman as the teacher's spouse. Sometime after receiving the letter, school officials fired the teacher, telling her that she was being fired because her relationship was against the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The woman has filed a grievance with her teachers' union and said she planned to file a complaint with her city, which has an ordinance prohibiting employment discrimination based upon sexual orientation. She is also reportedly considering a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Federal laws generally prohibit workplace discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and some other factors but offer little protection for those who have been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. Minnesota's Human Rights Act prohibits sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace, and some other states have similar laws. In some states, those protections are contained only in city ordinances.

Complicating matters further, courts have been reluctant to enforce sexual orientation protections against religious institutions, because doing so could arguably interfere with the separation of church and state. The Minnesota Human Rights Act exempts nonprofit religious associations and schools.

The laws regarding workplace discrimination are tricky, and it can be hard to know where to start with a claim. Minnesotans who feel they've been discriminated against at work because of sexual orientation or any other protected factor should get help understanding their legal options.

Source: Star-Tribune, "Gay teacher fights firing by Ohio Catholic school after partner's name appears in mom's obit," John Seewer, April 29, 2013

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