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7th Circuit: Prayerful Guidance Counselor Loses Title VII, First Amendment Claim

   5/16/2008

11/30/07 4:45 PM

7th Circuit: Prayerful Guidance Counselor Loses Title VII, First Amendment Claims

By Jeffrey W. Natke

A public school district’s refusal to grant a contract renewal to a guidance counselor at the end of her probationary status because she prayed with students and replaced school instructional materials on contraceptives with pamphlets advocating abstinence did not violate Title VII or the First Amendment, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appealsheld.

In 2002, the South Shore Public School District in Wisconsin hired Kathryn Grossman for a three-year probationary contract as a guidance counselor at the public school in Port Wing, a rural town in northern Wisconsin. Shortly after beginning work, Grossman discovered school materials in her office instructing students on contraceptives. Without consulting her supervisors, Grossman discarded the materials and replaced them with literature advocating abstinence.

Toward the end of her first year, a student, nervous about presenting a graduation speech, approached Grossman. With Grossman’s encouragement, the student and she agreed to pray together. Later, when a 12-year-old student came to Grossman in tears about her mother’s miscarriage, Grossman again suggested prayer together.

As Grossman’s probationary contract drew to a close, the school district decided against granting a renewal, which would have included lifetime tenure. Grossman filed suit, alleging the school district’s decision was based on hostility toward her religious beliefs in violation of Title VII and the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment.

The district court granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment. On appeal, the 7th Circuit affirmed, holding that there was insufficient evidence to create an issue for trial. According to the 7th Circuit, the school district properly based its decision on Grossman’s conduct, not her religious beliefs.

The court discussed how school authorities have a right to control guidance counselors’ policies and that even some religious parents may oppose a counselor “praying with their children or advocating abstinence as the sole method of birth control.” The 7th Circuit emphasized how school administrators were concerned not with Grossman’s theological views, but with Grossman’s abstinence strategy, which “related to her approach” for solving the teenage pregnancy problem.

Nonetheless, the 7th Circuit cautioned that the result may have been different if Grossman’s religious conduct “merely tipped off” supervisors of her possibly “repulsive” religious beliefs and if school administrators based their decision on these beliefs rather than on Grossman’s conduct. However, as the 7th Circuit explained, Grossman’s conduct merely signaled that she held beliefs “almost certainly shared by the Christian school administrators who decided not to renew her contract.”

Grossman v. South Shore Public School District , 7th Cir., No. 06-4294 (Nov. 15, 2007).

Professional Pointer: As this case emphasizes, although it may be permissible to base an adverse employment decision on an employee’s improper conduct, it is impermissible to predicate the decision merely on disagreement with an employee’s theological beliefs.

Jeffrey W. Natke is an attorney with the firm of Kamer Zucker & Abbott, a Worklaw® Networkfirm in Las Vegas .

Related Article:

8th Circuit: Fired Worker Wins Religious Discrimination Claim , Court Report, Aug. 10, 2007

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Editor’s Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice.

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