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Church Employee Fired for Acts Inconsistent with Church Policies

A Georgia woman has filed a lawsuit against a Warner Robins
church after having been terminated after church officials allegedly told her
she was “living in sin”.
The woman claims she was fired as a Nursery School
Coordinator at Friendship Baptist Church after officials questioned her
relationship with her fiancé and her legal situation with her ex-husband.

Jenny Atkinson filed charges with the EEOC after having been
sent a letter asking her to resign because a church personnel committee had
decided she was no longer “supportive” of Friendship Baptist Church. Atkinson
claims the personnel committee questioned her regarding her sex life, her
relationship with her fiancé, and why she was not married to him immediately.
She claimed legal issues with her ex-husband prevented her remarriage. Church
officials pushed Atkinson to seek legal advice to rectify her situation of
“living in sin”, but she was unable to obtain the services of an attorney and
informed church officials she felt discriminated against. Before receiving the
letter asking her to resign, Atkinson was sent two other messages by the church,
with the first inquiring into her personal situation, and the second warning her
about posting Facebook messages about her legal dispute online (though as we
have seen with the car salesman, Facebook firing can be valid unless it concerns
group activities
).

Usually churches claim a ministerial exception requiring
employees to adhere to church beliefs as a condition of employment, but here Ms.
Atkinson is claiming she did not perform a “ministerial” function with the
church. She claims there was no written description of personal conduct that was
required as a condition for employment, and that she is not even a member of the
church.

Atkinson has three young children, and is seeking damages for
mental and emotional suffering along with punitive damages. She is also seeking
back wages and attorney’s fees. Her attorney says one of the biggest reasons she
is bringing the suit is to show that the church cannot treat people in the way
she was treated (though the money must have something to do with it).
Regardless, it seems like messy business when an employer starts going through
an employee’s personal business. Here, the intersection of an organization that
seeks to define personal conduct and the conduct of one of their employees may
prove very costly for Friendship Baptist Church.