Judge rules Catholic nonprofit must cover health insurance for same-sex spouses

A federal judge has ruled that Catholic Relief Services, an international aid organization based in Baltimore, discriminated against a gay employee by denying his husband health insurance.

When the employee, known in court records as “John Doe,” took the job as a data analyst for Catholic Relief Services in 2016, he was told his husband could get health insurance through the organization’s spousal benefits system, according to legal documents .

“And then CRS turned to him and said, oh, that was a mistake. We don’t cover same-sex spouses,” said Eve Hill, a partner at the law firm Brown Goldstein & Levy and one of several attorneys representing Doe.

CRS initially provided benefits to Doe’s husband, but after months of discussions between Doe and the nonprofit’s human resources department, the organization removed Doe’s husband from the health plan in October 2017.

Doe filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2018, followed by case in 2020. Last week, Judge Catherine Blake of the U.S. District Court in Baltimore ruled in favor of Doe. Citing the 2020 US Supreme Court decision Bostock v. Clayton County, GeorgiaBlake writes in her opinion that CRS’s refusal to insure Doe’s husband constituted discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. CRS also violated the federal Equal Pay Act and the Maryland Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, Blake wrote.

“If Doe was a woman, not a man, and Doe was married to a man, Doe would have received those health care benefits. It’s very simple,” said Marley Weiss, who specializes in employment law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and is not involved in Doe’s case. “Doe being the guy is the game changer here.”

Catholic Relief Services declined to comment for this story.

In legal documents, the organization’s lawyers claim that as a religious organization it need not provide spousal benefits to someone whom the Catholic Church does not recognize as a spouse. Providing spousal benefits to a same-sex spouse would “significantly burden the exercise of religion” in violation of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, lawyers argued.

Weiss called these arguments “evasive maneuvers.”

“They’re making the argument that Title VII doesn’t apply to them at all because they’re a church-related organization or because the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would somehow exempt them from Title VII and the Equal Pay Act,” Weiss said. .

Those arguments are problematic because they are inconsistent with neither how courts have interpreted the laws nor with a plain reading of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, she said. Weiss said this case was less complicated because Doe’s job duties included designing databases and performing other internal administrative duties, but the outcome could have been different if the work had a religious element.

“Then there would be a pretty good argument that under existing Supreme Court case law that relies on the First Amendment to do a lot of rewriting of Title VII, the argument would be that the church would have the right to insist that Doe adhere to their religious tenants, she said, and therefore they would have the right to discriminate against Doe.

In court filings, CRS argued that Doe’s job duties were not tied to the organization’s religious mission.

Catholic Relief Services can appeal the decision. If the decision stands, CRS would have to provide the same benefits to Doe’s husband and other same-sex spouses that it provides to opposite-sex spouses. Other details about how much money Dow will receive in the legal settlement have yet to be worked out.

But Doe, who still works for CRS, said in an interview that compensation is not his primary goal. Instead, “CRS would provide the same health benefits to same-sex spouses as to opposite-sex spouses, that’s the ultimate goal,” he said.

Doe also said he views this case as more than a discrimination dispute between him and his employer.

“There are hundreds and thousands of people across the country in my position who have not been given the incredible opportunity to fight discrimination,” Dow said. “We are young. We are healthy. There are people who are losing their insurance and are sick.”

When asked why he chose to stay at CRS, Doe said he wanted to leave when he found another job that would be better for his professional development — not because of discrimination.

Still, he said he doesn’t think his job at CRS is secure.

“It makes me uncomfortable to know that my employer wants to have the right to discriminate against me because of my sexuality,” he said.