Oregon Appeals Court Says Fired Minister Is Entitled to Unemployment Benefits

June 3, 1999 12:00 am

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ACLU News Wire: 06-03-99 — Oregon Appeals Court Says Fired Minister Is Entitled to Unemployment Benefits

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PORTLAND, OR — The Oregon Court of Appeals this week upheld the awarding of unemployment benefits to a fired church minister, the Oregonian reported today.

The ruling followed previous interpretations of the Oregon Constitution that all religious organizations must be treated similarly.

According to the paper, the court also found that the state Employment Department inquiry into the reasons behind the firing was a “reasonable infringement” on the church’s autonomy under the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s a great victory for truth and light,” said Charles F. Hinkle, one of the attorneys who represented Minister Gordon R. Hensley on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.

Hensley began working for the Newport Church of the Nazarene as a youth minister in 1993. After being fired the following year, he applied for and was denied unemployment benefits.

For many years, according to The Oregonian, state law excluded church ministers from the unemployment system. But in 1985 and again in 1989, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the state Constitution forbade treating religious organizations differently. Both the Legislature and the Employment Department attempted to align the demands of the ruling with the requirements of federal employment law.

In the end, the Employment Department wrote a rule saying church ministers were not exempt.

According to the Oregonian, the Court of Appeals agreed that churches have a right to choose their ministers completely free from governmental interference. But, referring to a previous Oregon Supreme Court ruling, it said that the state is free to place some burdens on religious organizations.

In this case, the court reasoned, the administrative rule eliminating the exemption for ministers was the only way for the state to abide by its constitutional requirement that all religious organizations be treated the same. Failure to abide by the federal law would cost the state millions of dollars in federal funds, the court wrote — a compelling enough reason to subject churches to the infringement in inquiring into the firing of ministers.

Source: The Oregonian, June 3, 1999

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