A former editorial writer for the Indianapolis Star who claimed that she lost her job because of her “traditional” Christian beliefs regarding homosexuality was unable to support claims of religious discrimination under Title VII, because she could not show that she met the legitimate business expectations of her employer. Patterson v. Indiana Newspapers, Inc., 7th Cir., No. 08-2050, December 8, 2009.

Linda Coffey worked as an editorial writer for The Indianapolis Star and claims that she left the newspaper as a victim of employment discrimination. Coffey alleged that she was discriminated against because she is a Christian who believes that homosexual conduct is sinful. After she filed a lawsuit, the district court entered summary judgment in favor of the newspaper. That ruling was affirmed on appeal to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. (Note that Coffey filed her lawsuit along with another Star employee, James Patterson, who claimed age, race, and religious discrimination. His claim was dismissed, as well.)

The Indianapolis Star is that state’s largest newspaper. In 2003, Dennis Ryerson was named as the Star’s editor and vice president, and was responsible for newsroom staffing and editorial content. In that same year, Ryerson and Coffey, who was a member of the editorial department at the time, engaged in an e-mail exchange related to an editorial proposed by Coffey on the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas. In that case, the Supreme Court held that the right to privacy protects adults engaging in private, consensual homosexual activity. Coffey, who describes herself as a “traditional Christian,” proposed an editorial that described, in graphic detail, HIV risks associated with such activity. Although Ryerson refused to publish that column, he said that he was open to publishing a less graphic column on the risks of unprotected sex. That refusal triggered an e-mail exchange that Ryerson perceived as an attempt by Coffey at workplace proselytizing, which he warned Coffey was inappropriate.

During this same period, Coffey had developed a habit of violating the Star’s overtime policy by failing to have her overtime pre-approved. Although she was warned of this violation, Coffey continued to do extra work without pre-approval, often submitting hours that were viewed by the paper as “excessive and unnecessary.” In September 2003, administrative oversight for the Star’s internship program was transferred from Coffey to the newsroom editor, leaving Coffey with a less than full-time position. Although Ryerson offered Coffey a full-time position on the copy-desk, Coffey preferred editorial writing and resigned rather than transfer. On her last day at the Star, Coffey sent an e-mail stating that she had “enjoyed and appreciated” her work on the paper. However, in her lawsuit, Coffey claimed that the proposed transfer to the copy department was an adverse action, based on religious discrimination.

The Seventh Circuit upheld the dismissal of Coffey’s claims, stating that Coffey could not show that she met the Star’s legitimate performance expectations, because the undisputed evidence showed that Coffey continually had violated the paper’s overtime policy. Further, to the extent that Coffey claimed that Ryerson would have permitted someone who did not share Coffey’s religious views to remain in the editorial department notwithstanding violation of company rules, Coffey failed to show that a similarly situated employee (an editorial writer who repeatedly violated overtime rules) who did not hold her same religious beliefs (that homosexual conduct is “sinful”) was treated more favorably and, therefore, Coffey was unable to support her prima facie case of religious discrimination. Moreover, Coffey’s claim of “constructive discharge” was belied by her final e-mail, which expressed no complaint or concerns.

While claims of religious discrimination should be taken seriously by employers, such claims do not overshadow an employee’s duty to meet legitimate job responsibilities. In order to effectively establish the defense asserted by the Star in this case, an employer should have a written job description that sets forth the responsibilities of the employees. In addition, clear, objective, and complete records of the individual employee’s performance should be made and kept by the employer, in order to support the assertion that the employee has not met the employer’s legitimate expectations. In this case, documentation of meeting and warnings associated with Coffey’s violation of the overtime policy was critical in establishing Coffey’s failure to meet her employer’s expectations.