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Local Lawsuit Tests Sex Discrimination Rules for Religious Institutions

Christie Leonard says a Bradenton church fired her because of suspicions that she was a lesbian. Was that against the law?

By Cooper Levey-Baker May 4, 2021

Shortly after Christie Leonard moved to Manatee County in 2003, she began volunteering for Gospel Crusade, a Bradenton nonprofit that runs The Family Church and Christian Retreat conference center and produces videos for the Christian Television Network.

Leonard operated cameras for the organization, and quickly decided she wanted to move into audio-visual work as a career. After volunteering for six years, she landed a job as a video producer with Gospel Crusade, and later took on more responsibilities in the organization's accounting department.

In early 2019, Leonard was fired. And in a lawsuit filed later that year, Leonard alleged that the decision to fire her had nothing to do with her job performance. Instead, she says, she was fired because Gospel Crusade president Phil Derstine believed she and a former employee, a woman who had been fired in 2018, were engaged in an "intimate relationship."

Both Leonard (whose last name then was Nafziger) and the former coworker were married to men at the time, but living apart from their husbands, and they had decided to move in together. According to Leonard, emails, text messages and comments from Derstine show she was fired because she had separated from her husband and planned to live with the former co-worker.

For Leonard, losing her job was devastating.

"This was my family for 15 years," she says. "The people that I met at church—that was like my whole life. I didn't go very many places that I wasn't surrounded by people from this congregation. Then there was my direct relationship with God and this feeling like [those at the church] represent God. There was this enormous sense of rejection coming at me from all directions. The feeling was that I was worthless, worse than nothing."

In court filings, Gospel Crusade attorneys argue Leonard's firing was not based on her gender or marital status, but because of poor performance at work. Citing the ongoing lawsuit, the organization declined an interview with Sarasota Magazine, but did issue a statement through one of its attorneys.

"Gospel Crusade does not generally comment on pending litigation," the statement reads. "The church denies Ms. Nafziger’s claims that she was discriminated against or that her termination was improper. In 2018, Ms. Nafziger requested and was granted a 10-day vacation. Instead of returning to work at the conclusion, Ms. Nafziger abandoned her job for more than 80 days. The church gave her a second chance, but, based on her lack of work ethic and productivity, terminated her less than two months later."

After being fired, Leonard filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging that she was "harassed and ultimately discharged based on her sex/sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation," according to a letter of determination issued by the commission's Tampa office in June 2019.

"More specifically," the commission noted, Leonard claimed Gospel Crusade "placed a condition on her continued employment that she not live with a former employee because of rumors that they were having a lesbian relationship."

The commission found that there was "no evidence" to support Gospel Crusade's claim that Leonard was fired for performing poorly at work, and that there was "reasonable cause" to believe that Leonard's termination violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans companies from refusing to hire or firing someone because of one's race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In her lawsuit, Leonard also charges that her firing was a violation of the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992, which bars discrimination against people because of their "marital status."

Kevin Sanderson, the Sarasota attorney representing Leonard, says the commission's decision represented a break from the traditional understanding of sex discrimination, which historically has not covered gender identity or sexual orientation.

"The [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], when they found in Christie's favor, that was in open rebellion against the Trump administration's orders for how the executive agencies were to behave," says Sanderson. "That was a big, bold move."

Then, in a ruling issued the year after Leonard filed her lawsuit, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the definition of what might count as sex discrimination. In the ruling, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that an "employer who intentionally penalizes an employee for being homosexual or transgender" is in violation of the Civil Rights Act.

At the same time, however, Gorsuch recognized what is called the "Hosanna-Tabor exception" or "ministerial exception," which allows religious institutions wide latitude when hiring and firing religious leaders. But would, for example, a teacher at a religious school qualify as a "minister," and therefore be exempt from anti-discrimination laws? Gorsuch wrote that the scope of the rules remains "disputed."

In its filings, Gospel Crusade claims Leonard was covered by the "ministerial exception," because she "played an important role in conveying the church's message and carrying out its mission." Sanderson, meanwhile, argues that Gospel Crusade dictated the content of the videos Leonard produced and that Leonard was merely a "technician" for the organization.

"If this ministerial exception is really applied very broadly, you could see schools, universities, maybe even medical facilities, anything connected to a religious institution, claiming that all of their employees are connected to religious teaching and are all exempt," says Sanderson.

He notes that many such institutions employ large numbers of women. "For teachers and nurses," he says, "it takes those protections away."

Since being fired, Leonard, who says she identifies as "non-sexual," not a lesbian, has found another job in accounting, but would prefer to continue her career in video production. She says Gospel Crusade, however, has declined to act as a reference for her.

"It's very hard to say, 'I worked 15 years for so-and-so, but they can't provide a reference,'" says Leonard. "Those doors are closed to me."

The experience has also created strains within Leonard's family. Members of her family still attend services at Gospel Crusade, and she says people there have contacted her family to ask them to convince her to drop her lawsuit.

Leonard has found a new church that she says is supportive, and that she's heard from many women who have experienced workplace issues similar to hers. Her legal expenses are being paid by the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, which was launched in 2018 to fight sexual harassment and discrimination in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

"I really am concerned about the reach of this religious exemption that people will not be protected because of where they work," says Leonard. She points out that many members of Gospel Crusade's board are businessmen. "None of them could do what they did to me at their businesses," she says. "They can treat people however they want, based on whatever set of rules they come up with."

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