Employment Law for Ministries


Court Okays Same-Sex Benefits Discrimination Suit

A federal district court has allowed a man to pursue claims against Catholic Relief Services challenging CRS's denial of health care benefits to his male spouse.

The employee, "John Doe," worked in an information management job at CRS. During the recruiting process, Doe received a summary of health benefits available to CRS employees under an Aetna plan. The summary stated that employees could elect coverage for dependents such as a "wife or husband." After confirming with the recruiter that his spouse would qualify as a dependent, Doe moved to Maryland to take the CRS job.

Doe received another plan document when he began working at CRS. This document stated that Aetna "would rely on" CRS to determine dependent eligibility. In fact, then, CRS had discretion to exclude same-sex spouses from plan coverage. Nonetheless, Doe listed his husband as a dependent, and they both obtained and used health plan coverage. Eventually, however, CRS told Doe that it does not provide health plan coverage for same-sex spouses and that coverage for Doe's husband had been a mistake. CRS terminated the spouse's benefits.

Doe sued CRS under Maryland and federal law for discrimination based on sex and sexual orientation. CRS moved to dismiss most of the claims, although it conceded that Doe's discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Pay Act were plausible, and it did not seek to dismiss those two claims. The court's focus, then, was on Doe's claims under Maryland law.

For example, CRS argued that, because Maryland has a law explicitly banning sexual orientation discrimination, Doe could not sue for sexual orientation discrimination under Maryland laws that (like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act) refer only to "sex" discrimination. Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Bostock decision held that Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination even though it refers only to "sex" discrimination. In Doe's case, the court held that it was premature to decide whether Maryland law should be interpreted that same way.

CRS also moved to dismiss Doe's sexual orientation claim under Maryland law based on an exemption for religious activities. Specifically, the law does not apply to “a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity to perform work connected with the activities of the religious entity.” According to CRS, Doe's job responsibilities plainly constituted “work connected with the activities” of CRS. Noting that Maryland courts have not yet interpreted the religious activities exemption, the court denied CRS's motion so that it could continue to consider the issue as the case moved into discovery.

The court did grant CRS's motion to dismiss Doe's claim that CRS breached a contract when it withdrew benefits coverage for his spouse. The court observed that Doe was employed at will, that benefits documentation made no promise of coverage for a specific duration, and that CRS was free to change the terms and conditions of Doe's employment.

The court also dismissed various tort claims by Doe, such as a claim that CRS and its recruiter negligently misrepresented that same-sex spouses would receive coverage.

The case is Doe v. Catholic Relief Services, No. CCB-20-1815 (D. Md.). Please let us know if you have any questions regarding this development.

This summary is provided as an informational tool. It is not intended to be and should not be considered legal advice, and receipt of this information does not establish an attorney-client relationship.