Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Amos

In Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Amos (1987), former employees of unincorporated divisions of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) who refused or were ineligible to become members of the church challenged their being dismissed from their jobs. The employees who lost their jobs filed suit alleging that the LDS church committed religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In a decision that can be of great significance for religious schools and their employees, the Supreme Court found that religious employers do not run afoul of the Establishment Clause if they place religious requirements on their employees pursuant to Title VII.

Facts of the Case

According to Section 702 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “The subchapter. . . shall not apply . . . to a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.”

The former employees claimed that insofar as their duties were not religious in nature—for example, they served as truck drivers and as a seamstress—the LDS church did not qualify for exemption under Section 702. The LDS church responded that while the duties of these individuals did not directly involve proselytizing or the conversion of others to their faith, it was imperative that those working for LDS divisions support the church’s values. The employees answered that allowing religious employers to be exempt from liability under Section 702 for nonreligious jobs would, in actuality, have promoted religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Initially, the federal trial court in Utah granted the employees’ motion for summary judgment, but it vacated its order so that the United States could intervene. On reconsideration, the trial court reached the same outcome as in its first hearing. In attempting to resolve the issue, the trial court relied on the tripartite Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) test, considering whether there was a tie between the religious organization and the activity such as finances, day-to-day management, and supervision; whether there was a relationship between the activity and the religious tenets or beliefs of the organization; and what the relationship was between the job that the employees performed and the religious tenets of the organization. Based on these criteria, the trial court decided that because their work had nothing to do with promoting or teaching religion, the LDS church had violated its employees’ Title VII rights with the dismissal.

The Court’s Ruling

On further review, the Supreme Court reversed in favor of the LDS church. The Court held that Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination in employment as related to secular nonprofit activities of religious organizations did not violate the Establishment Clause.

The Supreme Court also applied the Lemon test but reached a different result. In its review of Lemon’s first prong, or “secular legislative purpose” test, the Court noted that the intent was not that an issue needed to be unrelated to religion, but rather that the government was prevented from promoting a particular point of view in religious matters. As for the second prong, “a principal or primary effect . . . that neither advances nor inhibits religion,” the Court pointed out that it is not unconstitutional for religious organizations to advance their beliefs. Rather, the Court explained, it is only forbidden for the government to advance religion through its influence and activities. Moreover, as applied in the case at bar, the Court observed that it was the LDS church, not the government, which fired its employees. When considering the third prong, the Court held that there was no impermissible entanglement between church and state. In its application of all three prongs of the test, the Court was of the view that because it was the LDS church, not the government, that dismissed the employees, their rights were not violated.

In sum, the Supreme Court noted that Section 702 of Title VII limits government interference with nonprofit activities of religious employers carrying out their religious missions.

Brenda R. Kallio

See also Lemon v. Kurtzman; Teacher Rights; Title VII

Legal Citations

  • Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Amos, 483 U.S. 327 (1987). 
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).