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Egan v. Hamline United Methodist Church

April 13, 2004

RANDALL M. EGAN, APPELLANT,
v.
HAMLINE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, RESPONDENT, KIM S. GRUETZMACHER, DEFENDANT.



Ramsey County District Court File No. C3-02-5763

Considered and decided by Shumaker, Presiding Judge; Klaphake, Judge; and Minge, Judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. A music director is a part of the church's religious staff and the Minnesota Human Rights Act does not protect such staff against discrimination and retaliation by the church as an employer if the discrimination and retaliation is based on the employee's sexual orientation.

2. The exemption for religious organizations from the prohibition against employment discrimination and retaliation based on sexual orientation in the Minnesota Human Rights Act may only be waived by a specific and unequivocal statement.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Minge, Judge

Affirmed

OPINION

Appellant, music director for respondent church, challenges the dismissal of his claims against the church as his employer for violations of the Minnesota Human Rights Act based on sexual orientation. Because we determine that the Minnesota Human Rights Act exempts religious staff of religious organizations from its protections against adverse employment action based on sexual orientation and because respondent has not clearly and unequivocally waived the exemption, we affirm.

FACTS

Appellant Randall Egan served as music director for respondent Hamline United Methodist Church (Hamline Methodist) beginning in 1994. Egan was responsible for managing and rehearsing Hamline Methodist's choir, selecting and preparing music for regular Sunday services and other special services, playing the organ, and supervising other church music groups, such as the children's choir and the hand bell choir. Egan's sexual orientation is bisexual.

In 1999, Hamline Methodist committed itself to be a reconciling congregation. A reconciling congregation is one that openly welcomes gay, lesbian, and bisexual parishioners into its membership. The process of formally adopting this policy at Hamline Methodist began in 1992 and was protracted and contentious.

On the evening of May 16, 2000, Egan observed respondent Kim Gruetzmacher and the church's hand bell choir director, Marilyn Wahlstrom, engaged in a conversation in the church parking lot. Gruetzmacher is a member of Hamline Methodist and of its hand bell choir. Egan approached the two because he simply wished to be sociable. Unbeknownst to Egan, Gruetzmacher and Wahlstrom were discussing the church's decision to identify itself as a reconciling congregation. After listening to Gruetzmacher express disagreement with the reconciliation policy and strong disapproval of homosexuals, Egan commented that he had not been aware that Gruetzmacher "was so homophobic."

The following day, Gruetzmacher sent a letter to Hamline Methodist's pastor expressing his disapproval of the congregation's reconciling policy decision and demanding an apology from Egan for referring to him as "homophobic." Egan was advised of the Gruetzmacher letter and ultimately told that unless he sent an acceptable letter of apology, he would be discharged. Egan responded that he could not in good conscience apologize for voicing support of Hamline Methodist's reconciling policy. Egan was then discharged.

On June 22, 2001, Egan filed a charge of discrimination with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR), alleging discrimination and retaliation by Hamline Methodist on the basis of sexual orientation under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). The MDHR dismissed Egan's claim, finding no probable cause to charge Hamline Methodist.

Egan then commenced this action alleging that Hamline Methodist's demand that he write a letter of apology and his subsequent discharge constituted discrimination and retaliation on the basis of his sexual orientation in violation of the MHRA.*fn1 Hamline Methodist moved to dismiss Egan's claims on the ground that, as a church, it is not subject to the Act and that therefore the district court lacked ...


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