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Volunteer Nuns Not Entitled to Protections of Title VII Regarding Religious Discrimination


Are volunteers entitled to the protections of Title VII regarding religious discrimination, retaliation, and harassment? No, according to a recent Sixth Circuit case.

The plaintiffs in the case were traditional Catholic nuns who held some beliefs that were different from those of the Roman Catholic Church. They served as volunteers for community organizations, including the American Red Cross. One nun started volunteering for the Red Cross in 2000 and, among other tasks, she assisted with blood services and was available to respond to disasters. She did not have a set schedule and volunteered in the office on a different day each week. The other nun began volunteering for the Red Cross in 2006. Each Saturday evening, she served in an on-call capacity should an emergency situation arise.

Each received the Red Cross volunteer handbook, which distinguishes an employee from a volunteer. It defines a volunteer as "an individual who, beyond the responsibilities of paid employment, freely assists the Red Cross in the accomplishment of its mission without expectation or receipt of compensation." Neither plaintiff received a salary or medical insurance, nor were they eligible to participate in any Red Cross retirement plan. They did not receive or complete W-2, W-4, or I-9 forms, or pay income taxes as a result of their relationship with the Red Cross. However, they claimed they received benefits in the form of eligibility for workers' comp and life insurance, access to educational programs, networking opportunities, improved standing in the community, in-kind travel donations and reimbursements, and access to disaster victims so that they could serve them as part of their religious beliefs.

Their supervisors gave them positive reviews and recommended them for a promotion. But the executive director refused to allow the promotions, because, the nuns alleged, she is a Roman Catholic and is biased against traditional Catholics. The initiated an internal complaint, which found a prejudicial email, but then in 2009 the nuns were terminated. They filed suit for religious discrimination, retaliation, and harassment. They lost at the district court level and appealed.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, finding that the nuns were not employees covered by Title VII. The nuns were not paid as employees. The nuns claimed they were receiving job-based benefits that were similar to remuneration, but the court found that those were simply incidental to their work rather than valuable financial consideration exchanged for their services. The appeals court also found that the educational opportunities, possibility for promotions, increased standing in the community, networking opportunities, and grant opportunities were speculative and insufficient to constitute remuneration. It was noteworthy that none of the parties treated the nuns as employees for income tax purposes, which also weighed against a finding that they were employees.

The upshot: Except in unusual circumstances, volunteers are not protected by Title VII laws against religious discrimination and harassment.

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