The lawyer for a church-affiliated school in Rockville that fired employees who were not church members asked the state's highest court yesterday to exempt religious groups from a Montgomery County anti-discrimination law, saying the law attacks their freedom of religion.
But lawyers for the former workers of the Montrose Christian School said it is their religious freedom that is under attack.
The anti-discrimination measure is peculiar to Montgomery County, and most similar laws around the country exempt religious groups, experts said. But advocates for the school say allowing Montgomery County's statute to stand would let other counties omit the religious exception, which would threaten the nature of more than 800 religious schools and the thousands of churches and other religious organizations in the state.
"If the Court of Appeals were to rule that the Montgomery County statute is constitutional, other counties might want to pass something similar. I think the threat is there," said Paul D. Raschke, lawyer for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, which is headquartered in Silver Spring and recently asked a federal court to throw out that section of the law.
The county argued that its law is neutral because it applies to all employers, a standard the Supreme Court has used in other cases.
The church-state issue is a thorny one that judges are reluctant to get tangled in. In this case, the issue is pricklier because freedom of religion is part of each side's arguments and because whoever loses is likely to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
The four employees were fired in 1996, after the arrival of a new pastor of the Montrose Baptist Church and new school principal. They sued and won in the lower courts.
The school administration espouses a religious philosophy and practice, and its workers carry out those policies, something that should not be second-guessed by government, argued the school's lawyer, Craig L. Parshall.
"They have a fundamental Baptist theology infused into that school," he said.
But opposing lawyers said that is neither enough nor should it apply to workers in jobs that have no religious connection, because it can be used to hide discrimination. Instead, they urged the judges to adopt a standard that looks at the job and consistency in hiring practices.
The fired women's jobs were mostly in the office and cafeteria, giving them little influence over students, they contended. They pointed to two non-Baptist janitors being retained, and said that though janitors would have little contact with students, one was also a basketball coach.
The more closely jobs are tied to the ministry or faith, the more courts have sided with religious groups.
"To run the kosher kitchen, you probably have to be Jewish. To be the dishwasher, you probably don't have to be Jewish. It's a bona fide requirement," said Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area and attorney for three of the fired workers.
Last week, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a music educator's job demotion by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., was protected by the First Amendment because the music was part of religious worship.