Recently, a federal magistrate judge in Louisiana denied a motion to dismiss in a case in which the defendant is alleged to have refused to hire a football coach because of his “Jewish blood.” Bonadona v. Louisiana College (W.D. La. July 13, 2018).
The case involves Joshua Bonadona, the son of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. Though Bonadona was raised in the Jewish religion, he converted to Christianity while attending Louisiana College (LC) as a student and football player. LC is a Baptist college built on a “Christian worldview.” Its mission statement includes numerous statements referencing God, the Church, scripture, salvation, baptism, and other religious principles.
Bonadona openly displayed his new faith, made it publicly known to the team, and often led its Christian devotional services. After graduating from LC in 2013, the school hired him as an assistant football coach. He worked at LC until June 2015, when he left to pursue a graduate degree and a football coaching position at Southeast Missouri State University.
In 2017, he applied for a position with LC as a defensive backs coach. During the application process, he described himself as a Baptist and a practicing member of the Christian faith. LC head football coach Justin Charles, who had invited Bonadona to apply for the position, recommended him for the job to LC President Dr. Rick Brewer.
A week after Bonadona’s interview with Dr. Brewer, however, Charles called Bonadona and told him that the college had decided not to hire him. When Bonadona asked Charles for clarification, Charles stated that Brewer had refused to approve his hiring because of “what Dr. Brewer called [Bonadona’s] ‘Jewish blood.’” Bonadona subsequently sued LC and Dr. Brewer, filing claims under both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 1981.
Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to refuse to hire an individual on the basis of his or her race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Typically, discrimination cases involving Jewish persons arise as a result of the person’s religion. However, in Bonadona’s case, he is not a member of the Jewish faith, but rather a man of Jewish descent. This racial rather than religious approach to the issue makes Bonadona’s case noteworthy.
Similarly, Section 1981, which was passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, prohibits contractual discrimination based on race (but not color, religion, or sex). More than thirty years ago, in a pair of companion cases, the Supreme Court concluded that both Jews and persons of Arab descent could bring actionable claims under this statute, consistent with understandings of race that existed at the time that statute was passed over a century earlier.
In their motion to dismiss, LC and Dr. Brewer argued that discriminating based on Jewish ethnic heritage is not discrimination based on race. The court flatly rejected this notion, relying on cases from other districts to demonstrate that, for the purposes of Title VII, the term “race” “encompasses ethnicity.” Therefore, the court held that discrimination on the basis of a person’s Jewish ethnic background can be race discrimination, writing that “Jewish citizens have been excluded from certain clubs or neighborhoods, and they have been denied jobs and other opportunities based on the fact that they were Jewish, with no particular concern as to a given individual’s religious leanings. Thus, they have been treated like a racial or ethnic group that Title VII was designed to protect from employment discrimination based on membership in that group.” Furthermore, although individuals like Dr. Brewer cannot be liable under Title VII, the court recommended that Bonadona’s Section 1981 claim be allowed to proceed to discovery against both defendants. It remains to be seen who will ultimately prevail.
Aside from drawing on precedent establishing the legal concept of a Jewish “race” in the eyes of the law when it comes to protecting against discrimination under Title VII, this case also presents a useful reminder for employers that, regardless of how to classify a particular protected trait, evaluation of employees should center on job performance and merit.
Kollman & Saucier acknowledges and appreciates the significant work that law student intern, Yitzchak Besser, put into preparing this blog post.