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No Title VII claim for modest clothing

A nursing assistant banned from wearing the modest garb prescribed by her Church of the Brethren faith cannot sue the Catholic nursing care facility that fired her for Title VII religious discrimination, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

Villa St. Catherine Inc., in Emmitsburg, Md., asked geriatric nursing assistant Lori Kennedy to modify her style of dress, which included long skirts and hair covering. Kennedy worked for the Catholic facility from 1994 to 2007.

At some point, according to Kennedy’s complaint, the assistant director of nursing services told Kennedy her attire was inappropriate for a Catholic facility and it made residents and their family members feel uncomfortable. Kennedy said her religious beliefs dictated her dress code, and she would not change her style of dress.

After she was terminated, Kennedy sued St. Catherine’s for religious harassment in violation of Title VII. The federal district court in Baltimore denied St. Catherine’s motion for summary judgment, and the 4th Circuit allowed an interlocutory appeal.

The appellate court reversed the district court, and said in its Sept. 14 opinion in Kennedy v. St. Joseph’s Ministries Inc., that the plain language of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1(a), the religious organization exemption, bars Kennedy’s claims.

Judge Dennis W. Shedd wrote the majority panel decision for St. Catherine’s, joined by Judge James A. Wynn Jr. Judge Robert B. King dissented, saying the court did not need to decide this “novel and complex statutory issue,” preferring instead to “wait for the district court to determine whether Kennedy has stated and can prove” her claims.
By Deborah Elkins

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