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Judge rules Catholic nonprofit must cover health insurance for same-sex spouses

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Catholic Relief Services is a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian relief worldwide.

A federal judge has ruled that Catholic Relief Services, an international humanitarian aid organization based in Baltimore, has been discriminating against a gay employee by denying his husband health insurance.

When the employee, known in court records as “John Doe,” took the job as a data analyst for Catholic Relief Services in 2016, he was told his husband could get health insurance through the organization’s spousal benefits system, according to the legal documents.

“And then CRS reached out to him and said, oh, that was a mistake. We don’t cover same-sex spouses,” said Eve Hill, a partner at the law firm Brown Goldstein & Levy and one of several lawyers representing Doe.

CRS did initially provide the benefits to Doe’s husband, but after months of discussions between Doe and the nonprofit’s human resources department, the organization removed Doe’s husband from the health plan in October 2017.

Doe filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in 2018, followed by a lawsuit in 2020. Last week, Judge Catherine Blake at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore ruled in Doe’s favor. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, Blake wrote in her opinion that CRS’s refusal to insure Doe’s husband amounts to discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. CRS also violated the federal Equal Pay Act and the Maryland Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, Blake wrote.

“If Doe had been a woman instead of a man, and Doe had been married to a man, Doe would have gotten these health care benefits. It's very simple,” said Marley Weiss, who specializes in employment law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and is not involved in Doe’s lawsuit. “The fact that Doe is the man is the game changer here.”

Catholic Relief Services declined to comment for this story.

In legal filings, the organization’s lawyers argued that as a religious organization, it does not have to provide spousal benefits to someone the Catholic Church does not recognize as a spouse. Providing spousal benefits to a same-sex spouse would “substantially burden its exercise of religion,” in violation of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, attorneys argued.

Weiss called these arguments “evasive maneuvers.”

“They bring in the argument that Title VII doesn't apply to them at all, because they're a church-related entity, or because the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in some way, would exempt them from Title VII and the Equal Pay Act,” Weiss said.

These arguments are problematic because they don’t align either with how the courts have interpreted the laws, or with a plain reading of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, she said. Weiss said this case is less complex because Doe’s job duties involve designing databases and performing other internal administrative duties, but the outcome might have been different if the job involved a religious element.

“Then there'd be a pretty good argument that under existing Supreme Court case law, which has relied on the First Amendment to do a lot of rewriting of Title VII, the argument would be that the church would be entitled to insist that Doe adhere to their religious tenants,” she said, “and therefore, they would be entitled to discriminate against Doe.”

In legal filings, CRS disputes that Doe’s job duties are not tied to the organization’s religious mission.

Catholic Relief Services could appeal the ruling. If the ruling stands, CRS will need to provide the same benefits to Doe’s husband and other same-sex spouses that it provides to opposite-sex spouses. Other details about how much money Doe would receive in the legal settlement still need to be worked out.

But Doe, who still works for CRS, said in an interview that compensation is not his primary goal. Instead it’s “that CRS would equally provide health benefits to same-sex spouses, the same they do opposite sex spouses, that's the ultimate goal,” he said.

Doe also said he views this case as more than a discrimination dispute between him and his employer.

“There are hundreds and thousands of people across the country in my situation who haven't been given the incredible opportunity to fight back against the discrimination,” Doe said. “We're young. We're healthy. There are people who are losing their insurance who are sick.”

Asked why he has chosen to remain employed at CRS, Doe said he wants to leave when he finds another job that would be better for his professional development — not because of discrimination.

Still, he said he does not feel like his job at CRS is secure.

“It makes me uncomfortable to know that my employer wants to have the right to discriminate against me because of my sexuality,” he said.

Rachel Baye is a reporter for WYPR's newsroom.
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