(RNS) A Michigan woman has filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, saying she was fired because of her divorce even as two male colleagues kept their jobs as they went through divorce and remarriage.

Alyce Conlon worked for the evangelical campus ministry as a spiritual director at the Grand Rapids office from 2004 until she was let go in December 2011, according to a suit filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

photo courtesy InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Photo of InterVarsity students courtesy InterVarsity Christian Fellowship


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A spokesman for InterVarsity said no one from the organization would be able to comment on the case, but provided the following statement:

“A vital element of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty is the freedom of religious employers to make hiring decisions through the use of faith-based criteria,” the statement said.

“As a Christian organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s credibility and witness depends on its ability to hire and retain personnel who share and abide by InterVarsity’s faith commitments. It is deeply regrettable that a former employee has chosen to challenge this key constitutional liberty.”

Conlon was placed on paid leave early in 2011 after informing supervisors that she and her husband were considering separation or divorce.

“During this leave of absence, plaintiff followed each and every requirement of the Separation and Divorcing Staff Policy including counseling sessions and continuing communication with her supervisors as to her progress,” attorney Katherine Smith Kennedy wrote in the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, during the absence, InterVarsity employees contacted Conlon’s husband to discuss the marriage without informing her. Despite following InterVarsity’s requirements for divorce procedures, the ministry let her go because she was not successful in reconciling her marriage, her lawyer alleges.

The lawsuit claims that she was treated differently than two male colleagues, who went through separation, divorce and remarriage and were allowed to stay on staff.

“When there are significant marital issues, we encourage employees to seek appropriate help to move towards reconciliation,” InterVarsity says, according to the lawsuit. When dealing with employment issues and divorce, ministry leaders take into consideration who initiated the divorce, the impact on work competency and funding and the effect on colleagues, students, faculty and donors.

Evangelicals vary on issues surrounding divorce, including in cases of adultery or desertion, as illustrated in a book published by InterVarsity Press, “Divorce and Remarriage.”

Both the Old and New Testament address divorce. “‘For I hate divorce,’ says the Lord,” states Malachi 2:16. “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery,” Jesus says in Matthew 19:9.

InterVarsity operates more than 700 chapters at colleges and universities around the country. The ministry’s hiring practices have created disputes over its requirements and standards.

Earlier this year, The University of Michigan temporarily barred InterVarsity from campus for requiring club leaders to sign a statement of faith — a policy the college said violated its anti-discrimination policy.

Last year, Tufts University temporarily barred the group because InterVarsity required its leaders to adhere to its statement of faith. In 2011, the University at Buffalo suspended an InterVarsity group after it asked a gay member to step down as treasurer.

The issue of divorce among employees or applicants has come up at other Christian institutions. A professor at Wheaton College resigned in 2008 because he did not want to share the details of his divorce with school administrators. In 2006, Oklahoma Christian University administrators considered formalizing a policy concerning divorce as cause for possible termination.

 

15 Comments

  1. Kenny Noble Cortes

    This has been and I suspect will always be a thorny issue for some churches. It is my belief that Jesus didn’t come to unscramble eggs – rather to deal with situations as they exist. Had the eldership demonstrated compassion and forgiveness, the church could have been a shining light. I don’t question their right to do what they did, just that they did it. Lawsuits may hurt more Christians than are helped.

  2. If the case is as stated by the female employee, there is something wrong here. The whole idea of keeping my employer informed of the “progress” of a divorce proceeding is way off base, faith-based organization or not.

    • Rev. David Cole

      Both parties missed a great opportunity for understanding and practicing the Christian Faith. Reading between the lines I would chide the Inter Varsity Fellowship for failing to treat their employee as a fellow Christian, obviously dealing with a faith issue or her own. Divorce is not an easy matter. As a Christian I am sure she had some issues to deal with that may well affect her job performance and was trying to deal with those issues. The IVF should have exercised more patience and allow her to work out those issues. If both decided a change of jobs warranted that choice then could have entirely not occupied court costs and denigrating publicity. God loves all of us including those who may be going through a divorce or other issues of far greater consequences.

  3. As someone who has led divorce recovery groups in Christian churches for eight years I object to the sloppy and incomplete way scripture was referenced in this article. In my bible, NIV, Mal 2:16 says this, “16 “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”[a] says the Lord Almighty.” The continual misrepresentation of the meaning of this verse is very painful to Christians who have legitimate reasons to divorce their spouse. Please stop inferring God’s judgement on innocent parties by continuing to mistate what the prophet wrote.
    An apology and retraction is due

    • Loren: Thanks for bringing up the citation of Mal. 2:16. When people cite the KJV-ized mistranslation of that verse, I retort with, “And bad translations.” That opens to discussing how the the KJV’s textual gymnastics started the church on a over four centuries of misreading a critical text. No translator prior to the KJV translated it as such, and modern translation (notably the vernerable ESV) are putting things right again. Just search the web for C. John Collins *excellent* breakdown of the verse, complete with historical understanding and why the ESV and and pre-KJV translations are closer to the truth. It’s not an easy verse to translate, but in any case it clearly does not support the KJV-ized rendering of the Hebrew text.

    • CC, because they interpret the bible the same way that slaveholders interpreted the bible: Whatever way I can use to my worldly advantage. “This patriarchy thing is working for me, so I guess I will understand scripture to support it.”

  4. I agree with Loren. Malachi 2:16 is trotted out as a key text, but you can ask any Hebrew professor: There are two words in that passage for which we don’t have a clear translation. No one really knows exactly what it says.

    That’s misusing a disputed text.

  5. Of course the vital information was not given (probably could not be found out). Was her reason for divorce biblical? Were the reasons biblical for the men who were retained? If their wives cheated on them or left them and she and her husband have just “fallen out of love” then there was nothing wrong here.

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