Oregon Court of Appeals Clarifies Religious Preference Exemption

The Oregon Court of Appeals recently clarified the scope of Oregon’s religious preference exemption defense to an unlawful discrimination claim. King v. Warner Pacific College, 296 Or. App. 155 (2019), concerns a lawsuit filed by plaintiff Noel King against Warner Pacific College, a Christian liberal arts college in Portland. Mr. King, who is Jewish, applied for a position as an adjunct psychology professor at the college. Warner Pacific interviewed King but ultimately rejected him because he is not a “Christ-follower.” Instead of hiring another applicant for the position, Warner Pacific chose to assign the duties of the position to current employees who were Christian.

The central issue before the Court of Appeals was the meaning of the term “prefer” as used in ORS 659A.006(4). That statute provides:

It is not an unlawful employment practice for a bona fide church or other religious institution, including but not limited to a school, hospital or church camp, to prefer an employee, or an applicant for employment, of one religious sect or persuasion over another if:

(a)The religious sect or persuasion to which the employee or applicant belongs is the same as that of the church or institution;

(b)In the opinion of the church or institution, the preference will best serve the purposes of the church or institution; and

(c)The employment involved is closely connected with or related to the primary purposes of the church or institution and is not connected with a commercial or business activity that has no necessary relationship to the church or institution.

Mr. King argued that the religious preference defense is narrowly limited to “preferring” an existing applicant from the current application pool. Under that interpretation, “the statute permits the college a religious preference only if the college fills the position from among applicants in the present hiring pool.” Warner Pacific disagreed. In the college’s view, the statutory preference permits a choice not to hire at all, to hire later, or to use its current employees.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Warner Pacific, finding that so long as the other statutory requirements are met, the college can lawfully exercise its religious preference by not hiring any applicant.

The Court went on to examine the only other contested aspect of ORS 649A.006(4): whether the “employment involved is closely connected to the primary purposes of the church or institution” and not any commercial or business activity. The Court held that the undisputed facts established that the position of adjunct professor of psychology, and the course to be taught, had been integrated with the college’s primary purpose of a Christ-centered learning environment. Those facts included the textbook and course syllabus, which showed that the professor is required to read scripture verses to students and conduct Christian meditations.

Take-Away

If you’re a church or other religious institution in Oregon, such as a school or hospital, you may reject an applicant on the basis of their religion without filling the position with another applicant at that time. Before making that decision, it is important to consider the primary purpose of your institution and examine whether the position is closely connected to that purpose.

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