Policy against preaching Christian beliefs in class is not evidence of religious discrimination says Austin Court of Appeals

Dr. James Jones v. Angelo State University, 03-14-00112-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, December 18, 2015).

This is a religious discrimination/failure-to-accommodate in employment dispute where the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part the granting of the summary judgment filed by Angelo State University (“University)”.

Jones was an associate professor in the Computer Science Department. Under Jones’ contract, he could be reappointed or “not non-reappointed” at the end of each school year. Jones identifies himself as “an active evangelical Christian” and maintains that “it is his religious practice to identify himself as an evangelical Christian and to share his faith with others.” Jones would engage in this practice by making a religious statement to his students at the beginning of the first class of the semester and at the end of the last class of the semester.   This resulted in a written complaint from a student in 2006 because of which Jones was counseled. After, the University documented a decline in performance by Jones and an increase in complaints and poor student evaluations. Jones was not reappointed for the 2009-2010 school year. He sued. The University filed several dispositive motions which ultimately dismissed all of Jones’ claims. Jones appealed the summary judgment order dismissing only his religious discrimination/failure-to-accommodate claims.

An employer commits an unlawful employment practice if, because of the employee’s religion, the employer “fails or refuses to hire an individual, discharges an individual, or discriminates in any other manner against an individual in connection with compensation or the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” Tex. Lab. Code §21.051(1). Additionally, §21.108 provides that an employer engages in religious discrimination if it fails to make reasonable accommodations for the religious observances of its employees. The University moved for summary judgment on Jones’s discriminatory discharge claim noting Jones could not provide any direct proof of discriminatory intent and could not establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment.  The University asserted any policy requirement that Jones not make religious preaching in class was not directed at his religion but on his practice of teaching. The court agreed the evidence did not substantiate discriminatory intent based on Jones’ religious beliefs. Additionally, Jones did not present any evidence a member outside his protected class was treated more favorably (i.e. that the University hired a non-Christian). The trial court properly granted summary judgment on the discrimination claim. However, that did not address the failure-to-accommodate claim. The court sidestepped the issue a bid by holding the summary judgment motion did not actually challenge the failure-to-accommodate claim the way it was written. And since a court cannot grant a motion for summary judgment on a ground not raised in the motion, it was error to dismiss such claim. [Comment: the court noted in dicta that while the request to stop preaching in class was not evidence of discriminatory intent, it could be viewed as a failure-to-accommodate.]

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Chief Justice Rose, Justice Goodwin and Justice Field.  Memorandum Opinion by Justice Field.  The attorney for Jones is listed as Mr. Frank Gilstrap.  The attorneys for the University are listed as Mr. David C. Mattax, Ms. Erika M. Kane and Mr. Daniel C. Perkins.