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Hutson v. Concord Christian School, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville Division

November 4, 2019




         This civil action is before the court for consideration of Defendants' motion for summary judgment. [Doc. 27]. Plaintiff has filed a response, and Defendants have submitted a reply. [Docs. 30, 32]. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted.

         I. Background

         A. Hiring as Teacher at Concord Christian School

         In March 2011, Plaintiff Tabatha Hutson applied for a teaching position at Concord Christian School (“CCS”). [Doc. 28-1 at 1-4]. A significant portion of the teacher application inquired about matters relating to Plaintiff's “Christian Background.” [Id. at 1-2]. Plaintiff indicated on her application that she had read the school's “Statement of Faith” and fully supported the Statement as written. [Id. at 2]. According to Leigh Ledet, CCS's elementary school principal, the Statement of Faith, provided to all new hires, stated, in relevant part:

Because [CCS] is a ministry of First Baptist Concord, our doctrinal beliefs are a reflection of the church's beliefs. We are unashamedly a Christian program and we make no apologies for or compromises to our convictions. It is our desire to present the gospel of Jesus Christ so that each child may have the opportunity to accept Him as Lord and Savior of his or her life[.]

[Doc. 28 at 2-3]. The Statement of Faith also contained a list of the Church's fundamental religious beliefs. [Id. at 3].

         On her application, Plaintiff listed her denominational preference as “Baptist, ” her current church affiliation as “First Baptist Concord, ” and her pastor's name as “Doug Sager.” [Doc. 28 at 3-4; Doc. 28-1 at 3]. The application asked what church activities Plaintiff was involved in, and she responded that she attended services and Bible Fellowship class every Sunday, worked in the nursery every other Sunday, attended “The Well” once a month, and attended “Mom to Mom” once a month. [Doc. 28 at 4; Doc. 28-1 at 3]. The application then asked “What other Christian service have you done since becoming a Christian?” and Plaintiff responded that she reached out to single moms by calling and e-mailing them to invite them to “The Well, ” led a table at “The Well, ” and participated in fellowship workdays with her Sunday school class. Next, the application asked about Plaintiff's routine of personal Bible study and prayer, and she responded that she used Bible reading plans every night before bed, journaled once or twice a week, and led a daily devotion with her son each morning. [Id.]. The application then asked for a list of books that Plaintiff had read in the past two years that had “helped [her] grow spiritually, ” and Plaintiff provided several Christian book titles. [Doc. 28-1 at 3]. Finally, the application asked Plaintiff to provide a brief summary of her “Christian testimony.” Plaintiff responded that she considered herself a “baby Christian, ” as she had been raised Catholic but converted to Baptist in 2005. Plaintiff indicated that, at the time of her conversion, she “felt the Holy Spirit pull at [her], ” she “prayed and asked God to take [her] whole life, ” and she “gave Him [her] heart and made Him Lord of [her] life.” [Doc. 28 at 4-5; Doc. 28-1 at 3].

         The teacher application included a “Declaration of Moral Integrity, ” which stated that CCS “expects all of its employees to model the same Christian values and lifestyle that it seeks to inculcate in its students.” [Doc. 28 at 5; Doc. 28-1 at 4]. The declaration continued on to say that the applicant declared that the applicant had not, in the past year, engaged in, was not currently engaging in, and committed, during her term of employment not to engage in “inappropriate sexual conduct, ” which the declaration defined to include “heterosexual activity outside of marriage (e.g., premarital sex, cohabitation, and extramarital sex)[.]” Plaintiff signed the declaration. [Id.].

         On August 1, 2011, Plaintiff was hired as a kindergarten teacher at CCS. [Doc. 28 at 6]. As part of her new hire paperwork, Plaintiff signed a statement that she committed “to conduct [her]self in a manner that demonstrates a Christ-like attitude in performing all position responsibilities in order to exalt our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” [Id.; Doc. 28-2]. Thereafter, Plaintiff was employed through a series of contracts beginning in August of a school year and ending in June of the following year. [Doc. 28 at 6]. Her last contract was from August 2016 to June 2017, at which point she was assigned to teach second grade. [Id.].

         B. CCS Policies in 2016-2017 School Year

         In May 2016, Plaintiff signed a “Letter of Commitment for Employment” for the 2016-2017 school year. [Doc. 28-3 at 1]. This letter stated that CCS “is unique in that it is a Christian school and is committed to maintain in the framework of Christian principles and high educational standards” and that “it is the policy of [CCS] to employ highly qualified Employees who support Christian education in pursuit of such high educational standards.” The letter noted that the employee may be suspended or discharged for good cause, including “any conduct not in keeping with the Christian faith[.]” [Id.].

         CCS's 2016-2017 Faculty/Staff Handbook (“the Handbook”), stated that the mission of CCS “is to lead students to connect with Christ, grow in faith, and serve with conviction, making a world of difference.” [Doc. 28 at 10; Doc. 28-4 at 6]. Within the section labeled “Concord Christian School Philosophy, ” the Handbook stated:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. At the heart of the Christian philosophy of education is the acknowledgement that God created all things and that they exist by His power and for His pleasure. Only through Christ can there be a unity which gives meaning to all parts of life. An education which fails to acknowledge God and His work will always be woefully inadequate and incomplete.
An education which understands the nature of reality, God, the universe, man and His purpose for existence, truth and absolutes, must be one which teaches the Bible as God's infallible Word and sees each student as created in God's image for His purpose. Life is then seen as contributing to God's purpose and man's ultimate goal is to know and obey God.
[CCS] endeavors to give a completely God-centered orientation of life to each student. It strives to help produce the mind of Christ in its students and to establish a well-grounded, biblical world view. Academics are not a means of self-promotion or pride but a way of increasing one's awareness of God and being useful in His kingdom. Christians should excel in all subject areas because they put Christ first and see their work as unto the Lord and not unto men.
The ultimate responsibility of educating a child has been given to the parents. [CCS] operates as an extension of and partner with the home and church in training children to be godly, and also focuses on developing the whole child: spiritually, academically, athletically, creatively, and socially.

[Doc. 28 at 10-11; Doc. 28-4 at 6 (emphasis added)].

         The Handbook also contained several commitment statements on behalf of the administration, staff, and congregation of First Baptist Concord. [Doc. 28 at 6-7; Doc. 28-4 at 7-8]. The commitment statements announced that CCS “is a ministry of First Baptist Concord, ” and is “unashamedly a Christian program” that “make[s] no apologies for or compromise to [its] convictions.” [Doc. 28 at 6-7; Doc. 28-4 at 8]. This section also stated that “[i]t is our desire to present the gospel of Jesus Christ so that each child may have the opportunity to accept Him as Lord and Savior of his or her life.” [Doc. 28 at 7; Doc. 28-4 at 8]. The Handbook's commitment statements further stated that CCS intended to recruit and retain employees who:

1. Profess to and live the example of a child of God, saved by the atoning death of His Son, our Lord and ...

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