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Finding Title VII’s exemption for religious institutions “is not limited to facilities where prayer takes place,” a magistrate judge has dismissed a suit against a Jewish community center brought by an evangelical Christian who claims she was fired because she attended a “Jews for Jesus” concert. In his 15-page opinion in LeBoon v. Lancaster Jewish Community Center, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacob P. Hart rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the LJCC is not entitled to the exemption because its purpose is “essentially secular,” and it is not affiliated with any synagogue. Instead, Hart found that courts have taken a broader view of the exemption, extending it to any institution that includes religion among its primary purposes. Plaintiff’s attorney J. Michael Considine Jr. of West Chester, Pa. argued in court papers that LJCC’s mission statement showed that it focuses on developing a Jewish community in Lancaster through “identity, education and cooperation.” As a result, Considine argued, LJCC’s mission “is not spiritual.” Hart disagreed, saying “this fails to take account of the fact that LJCC seeks to sustain a specifically Jewish community.” Minutes from the LJCC’s board meetings, Hart said, “reveal the pervasive Jewish orientation of the organization.” Although the LJCC is not run by, and is not directly answerable to, any one synagogue or denomination of Judaism, Hart found that more than 75 percent of its funding came from the Lancaster Jewish Federation campaign, and that rabbis of the three local synagogues were ex officio members of LJCC’s board of directors and assisted in programming and fund-raising. The LJCC also decided to maintain a kosher kitchen, Hart noted, in order to create “an environment where all members of the Lancaster Jewish community could feel comfortable participating.” Hart also noted that the center produces Jewish education and cultural programming, including a Holocaust Commemoration Day, a Chanukah dinner and a Purim carnival, and that “only Jews were to be solicited as LJCC members.” Although a number of programs sponsored by the LJCC are religion-neutral and open to members of the general public — such as fitness and self-defense classes, and a secular pre-school program — Hart found that “this does not change the underlying purpose and orientation of the organization.” The ruling is a victory for LJCC’s lawyers, Daniel J. Brennan and Christine N. Schulz of McAleese McGoldrick Susanin & Widman in King of Prussia, Pa. According to court papers, plaintiff Linda LeBoon worked for the LJCC as a bookkeeper between 1998 and her termination in August 2002. In the suit, LeBoon claimed that the firing was the result of both religious and racial discrimination that stemmed from her support of a black woman who was fired from LJCC and her attendance at the Jews for Jesus concert. In court papers, LJCC insists that LeBoon was fired for purely economic reasons. But LeBoon claims that events immediately preceding her termination show that economic explanation is not true, and instead was a “pretext for discrimination.” Eight months before LeBoon was fired, an organization called the Messiah Truth Project gave a seminar at the LJCC. MTP, which is headed by David Goodman, had as its goal the education of Jews in order to counter the efforts of Jews for Jesus and similar movements that specifically seek to convert Jews to Christianity. Just one week before LeBoon was fired, she attended a Jews for Jesus concert at her church where she saw Goodman and introduced him to one of the Jews for Jesus singers. An LJCC receptionist testified that “a couple of days after” LeBoon was terminated, she overheard a conversation in which LeBoon’s supervisor, Natalie Featherman, told several LJCC board members that Goodman had come to the LJCC and told her that LeBoon attended the Jews for Jesus meeting. LeBoon also claimed in the suit that four months before she was fired, she objected to Featherman’s decision to terminate the contract of Sandy Simms, a black woman, in order to make room for a Jewish bookkeeper who formerly worked at Jewish Family Services. The suit alleged that Featherman said she did not want “those kind” working at the front desk, referring implicitly to Simm’s race. But LJCC’s lawyers insisted that Simms was not fired because of her race, or to make room for a Jewish bookkeeper, and that LeBoon never opposed Simms’s termination. Hart noted that Simms signed a statement in which she admitted that she took a day off from work without notifying the LJCC, and that Featherman told her the next day that she would no longer be permitted to work there. In a motion for summary judgment, LJCC’s lawyers argued that LeBoon’s claim of religious discrimination must be dismissed because LJCC is entitled to an exemption from such a claim under �702 of Title VII. Hart found that �702 once permitted exemption from suit only with regard to religious activities, but was amended in 1972 to extend protection to all activities of religious organizations. Considine argued that LJCC does not qualify for the exemption due to the mostly secular nature of its activities. But Hart found that courts have taken a much broader view of the scope of the exemption. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Amos held that �702 permitted a non-profit gymnasium run by the Mormons to refuse to hire individuals who were not eligible for membership in the Mormon Church. And in Feldstein v. The Christian Science Monitor, Hart said, a federal judge in Massachusetts applied �702 in holding that the newspaper was entitled to hire as reporters only members of the Christian Science Church. “This was despite the plaintiff’s allegation that the Christian Science Monitor was ‘a highly regarded and impartial newspaper carrying news stories, articles, columns and editorials that are secular in nature and content,’” Hart noted. The Feldstein court instead found that “a religious activity of a religious organization does not lose that special status merely because it holds some interest for persons not members of the faith.” Hart also rejected Considine’s argument that LJCC cannot be considered a religious organization because it receives government funding and has certified to the United Way that it does not discriminate in employment. The same argument was rejected by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, when it applied �702 to dismiss a suit against a Baptist-run nursing school despite the fact that it received federal funds and claimed to be an equal opportunity employer. In Hall v. Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp., the 6th Circuit held that �702 exemption “could not be waived,” Hart said. Likewise, Hart said, the 3rd Circuit rejected an argument that a Catholic school waived its right to exemption by knowingly hiring a non-Catholic. In Little v. Wuerl, the 3rd Circuit found that �702 exemption cannot be waived “because it is not a privilege, but a right,” Hart said. Hart said he had “no hesitation” in finding that the LJCC is a religious organization within the meaning of �702 because the evidence showed that it is “far more religious in its daily activities than the gym found by the U.S. Supreme Court to be worthy of protection in Amos.” In the final section of the opinion, Hart found that LeBoon’s claim of race discrimination also fell short since she cannot show any connection between her alleged objection to the firing of the black woman and LJCC’s decision months later to fire LeBoon. “I believe that some evidence is required to tie LeBoon’s termination specifically to her complaints to Featherman about perceived discrimination,” Hart wrote. “LeBoon has not come forward with this evidence. She has not pointed to any evidence that would suggest she was viewed as an unwanted protector of her co-workers’ civil rights,” Hart wrote.

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