Court rules for Baptist school infirings case

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that a Baptist school in Montgomery County did not discriminate against four of its employees when it fired them because they were not of the same religious faith. Top Stories

The seven-judge panel unanimously agreed that Montrose Christian School in Rockville should not pay an estimated $200,000 in damages to the former employees because a county law that restricts a church school's faith-based hiring practices violates the religious freedom protections of the First Amendment.

The Montgomery County code forbids church groups from considering religious beliefs in hiring practices unless the employee was to "perform purely religious functions." But the court yesterday threw out the phrase "to perform purely religious functions" to make it constitutional for groups and religious schools like Montrose to give their own church members preference in hiring.

"This court decision vindicates the vision of the Founding Fathers, who expressed a passionate commitment to religious freedom," said Craig Parshall, an attorney who represented the church school.

"It also sends a clear message that under the First Amendment, religious schools, houses of worship and ministries must be able to make faith-based decisions without fear of being assessed huge fines and damage awards for 'religious discrimination,' " said Mr. Parshall.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the case for three of the four employees said yesterday they were disappointed with the decision.

"We were hoping the court would have made a decision that was sensible and constitutional, not absurd and unconstitutional," said Art Spitzer, an ACLU lawyer.

The plaintiffs could, under law, appeal yesterday's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but only if the case involves a federal issue. Mr. Spitzer said he could not comment on whether the plaintiffs would continue with their case.

The Maryland Court of Appeals is the highest court in the state.

The ruling comes nearly four years after the former employees filed a $200,000 lawsuit against the school, claiming its policy of hiring only members of its affiliated Montrose Baptist Church is discriminatory.

Sharon Walsh, Mary Louise Jones, Helen Poole and Barbara Carver said in the two separate lawsuits that the school discriminated against them on the basis of religion when they were fired in June 1996.

Ms. Walsh, Ms. Jones and Ms. Poole filed their complaints with the ACLU, who in turn filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit in June 1997. Ms. Carver hired Steven Schneebaum, a lawyer in the District, to represent her case at the same time.

The school is located at 5100 Randolph Road. It currently has more than 100 employees and 600 students who are enrolled in its kindergarten through 12th-grade program.

Mr. Parshall, the school's attorney, said the school "let go" the plaintiffs in June 1996, several months after the Rev. Ray Hope became the new pastor of Montrose Baptist Church, which operates the school.

Mr. Hope changed several administrative policies, including hiring only Montrose Baptist Church members to work at the school and church.

In April 1999, a Montgomery County judge found that the school discriminated against the four women by firing them on the basis of their religious beliefs and ordered the school to pay $200,000 in damages. But the school appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals.

Yesterday's ruling overturns the lower court's decision.