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Lawsuit Says Catholic Relief Services Discriminates Against Gay Employee

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Monday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ employees from workplace discrimination is likely to have implications for a lawsuit filed late last week in federal court in Baltimore.


The lawsuit accuses Catholic Relief Services, an international humanitarian aid organization headquartered in Baltimore, of discriminating against a gay employee by denying health insurance coverage for the employee’s husband.


The employee, known in the lawsuit as John Doe, said he was recruited to work at Catholic Relief Services in mid-2016.


“Before I accepted the job, I had asked the recruiter if my husband would be covered under the spousal insurance, and she told me that all dependents were covered,” Doe said in an interview. “I reviewed all the benefits material, and there were no exclusions for same sex spouses.”


Doe took the job and moved with his husband to Baltimore. But in November 2016, after working at CRS for less than six months, human resources informed him that they had made a mistake — same-sex spouses are not eligible for the company’s health insurance.


“They said it was against Catholic social teaching,” Doe said. “I asked for a policy. They said there was no policy, and it's up to them to decide who gets spousal benefits.”


Doe negotiated with CRS until October 2017, when Doe’s husband was dropped from the policy.


The legal complaint says that while Doe was fighting for his husband’s health insurance coverage, a “senior CRS official” warned Doe that continuing to push the issue would get him fired.


“It has been very frustrating, uncomfortable, scary at times,” Doe said. “This is the first time that I know of that I've been discriminated so clearly — in such a clear way by my employer.”


A spokeswoman for CRS declined to comment about “an ongoing legal action.”


Monday’s Supreme Court ruling confirms one of the arguments laid out in the lawsuit, said Eve Hill, an attorney with the firm Brown Goldstein Levy, LLP who is representing Doe in the case.

The opinion by Justice Neil Gorsuch says that “if you compare an individual male employee and an individual female employee, and the female employee would get, for example, health insurance coverage for her male spouse, and the male employee would not get health insurance coverage for his male spouse, both of them legally married spouses, then that is illegal sex discrimination,” said Marley Weiss, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, who is not involved in Doe’s case.


The decision bolsters Doe’s case, Weiss agreed. However, the Supreme Court left open the question of whether CRS is exempt from the Title VII requirements because it is affiliated with the Catholic Church.


CRS itself is not a church or a Catholic school, and Doe’s work isn’t religious in nature. So, Weiss said, he should be protected by Title VII.


But she said recent Supreme Court rulings have offered broad interpretations of religious freedom protections.


“It would not be beyond imagining that the Supreme Court could eventually hand down a decision that would exempt Catholic Relief Services from equal employment obligations that are not religiously based,” Weiss said.


In addition to Title VII, Doe’s lawsuit says CRS violated a Maryland law that protects against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It also says they violated a contract — by promising health insurance, then taking it away — and they illegally tried to retaliate against him when they threatened to fire him.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.