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State Finds ‘Substantial Evidence’ for Retaliation Charge at Illinois Church

A firing at Dane Ortlund’s Naperville Presbyterian Church spurred a rare legal determination that could be a useful case study for churches.
State Finds ‘Substantial Evidence’ for Retaliation Charge at Illinois Church
Image: Courtesy of Naperville Presbyterian Church

A 2021 firing of a female staff member from a Chicago-area church led by pastor and author Dane Ortlund was determined to have “substantial evidence” of retaliation, according to an investigation into alleged discrimination by the state of Illinois.

The former director of operations at Naperville Presbyterian Church, Emily Hyland, said her termination came days after privately complaining to two elders about gender discrimination from Ortlund. At the time, she had worked at the church for eight years, and he had been senior pastor for six months. After her firing, she filed charges over gender discrimination and retaliation at the state agency.

The Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) did not find evidence that the church or Ortlund discriminated against her based on her gender. Evidence shows that “Ortlund … never made any discriminatory remarks directly related to [Hyland’s] sex,” the report said, nor was there evidence of discrimination that rose to the level of a “hostile work environment.”

The church insists that Hyland did not frame her complaint as gender discrimination until after her termination. But the agency found there is “substantial evidence” to support her charge that she was fired “in retaliation for having engaged in prior protected activity.”

Even if there is no “actionable” discrimination found, employers cannot retaliate against an employee for making a report, said employment lawyer Ed Sullivan.

Ortlund, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, is the author of Gentle and Lowly, a bestseller. A longtime member of the Naperville congregation, he became its pastor in October 2020, with Wheaton College president Philip Ryken leading the installation.

Ortlund declined to comment to CT on the allegations, but in the state filing, the church said that Hyland was fired because of “her unwillingness to grow out of insubordination and lack of performance.”

Ortlund became the pastor in October 2020, and he and the associate pastor met with Hyland to discuss their concerns about her job performance in January 2021. She was fired in March 2021.

The state agency report says it is an “uncontested fact” that Hyland reported gender discrimination nine days before her firing. Several days later, Hyland said, the elders shared her complaints with Ortlund, and two days before her firing she and Ortlund met to discuss her complaints. The church said in the report that there was no connection between her complaint about discrimination and her firing.

Hyland said she felt bullied, adding that Ortlund disregarded her experience, micromanaged her, and slowly removed her responsibilities. “I was watching my role disappear in front of me,” she told CT. Ortlund in the case documentation emphatically denied all the charges against him, saying it was a basic dispute over professional performance and that he was never angry or discriminatory toward her.

After her firing, she said she was not treated with adequate pastoral care despite being a longtime member of the church, the elder board (known in the PCA as the session) declined to meet with her, and staff were instructed not to talk to her.

Employment disputes are common, but this case might offer useful lessons for churches in similar disputes–both in terms of legal complexity and in terms of navigating pastoral care of a terminated staffer who is also a church member. Employment lawyers say it’s rare for an agency to issue a finding of substantial evidence of retaliation, making Hyland’s case a significant one.

The state agency through a spokesperson confirmed to CT that it finds a “lack of substantial evidence” in the majority of its cases, but emphasized that employees should not see that as a reason to avoid reporting discrimination.

An IDHR spokesperson, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said on background that in general the agency takes retaliation seriously because even if there is no discrimination, retaliation “creates a culture of silence.” Retaliation is the leading basis for charges at the agency.

At the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2021, these types of findings were rare too: Only 2.1 percent of retaliation charges resulted in a finding that there is “reasonable cause” to believe discrimination had occurred. Most charges are dismissed as having “no reasonable cause,” and a smaller percentage are resolved through a process like conciliation before the EEOC makes a determination.

Employees can file charges with state or federal agencies or both, and Hyland filed charges with both the IDHR and the federal EEOC. If the state takes the lead on the charges, then the EEOC usually does not get involved, lawyers said.

Churches are shielded to some extent from employment discrimination litigation because of First Amendment protections on hiring and firing religious staff. The Supreme Court’s unanimous Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC ruling in 2012 established a broad “ministerial exception,” that a teacher at a Christian school counted as a “minister” and therefore could not sue her employer over her firing.

It’s not clear if courts might consider Hyland, who managed church buildings and budgets, to be a “minister.” A more recent Supreme Court ruling broadened the exception to include anyone who is central to the religious organization’s mission.

One of the two elders who fired Hyland alongside Ortlund, Dave Veerman, said he regretted the handling of the firing and said he should have listened to Hyland before taking action. When Ortlund became the pastor, Veerman was excited, he said, because he liked Ortlund’s writing and teaching. Now, Veerman told CT, “I tend to believe Emily’s side of things,” though he thinks Ortlund “wants to do the right thing.”

Veerman, who belonged to Naperville Presbyterian for 36 years and was its longest-serving elder, wrote a statement defending Hyland to the presbytery and has since left the church—though his departure was not directly related to Hyland’s case.

“In church that long, you see a lot of stuff,” he told CT. “Churches are messy at times.”

Veerman was on the personnel committee, made up of three elders. In 2021, when Ortlund came to talk to them about a personnel issue, Veerman was “shocked” when he heard the issue was with Hyland.

“I’ve known Emily as a very competent person,” Veerman said. But he added, “I never worked with her. I’m trying to be supportive of Dane, our new pastor. So we listened to everything, he gave this history of their relationship. … I just took Dane’s word for everything.”

After the meeting, Veerman said he called three or four elders to tell them the plan to fire Hyland and they were all surprised but accepted it.

When Veerman later resigned from the session (the elder board), he apologized to Hyland.

After her firing, Hyland also brought her complaints about Ortlund to the local presbytery in the Chicago area, which investigated. The presbytery concluded in a private action this fall that “the reports from Emily Hyland do not create a strong presumption of guilt against the character” of Ortlund. The presbytery report focused on her professional performance issues as justification for her firing.

Hyland said no one had complained about her work or behavior before Ortlund joined the staff. The firing was devastating to her personally. “It was so catastrophic to lose all my Christian community in Naperville,” she said. “Just gone.”

The presbytery said her legal actions following her firing created a “challenging environment” for church leadership to provide her with “pastoral care.”

Another elder, who has struggled to transition to a new church and asked not to be named, said he felt pushed out of the church after he helped Hyland remove some of her office items from the church following her firing. He said Ortlund was angry with him about helping her move and questioned him extensively about it.

Though his departure a few months later was not directly related to Hyland’s, he said he felt like he was on Ortlund’s bad side after that incident. He no longer attends a PCA church.

In the church’s responses to charges in the state investigation, Ortlund stated the elders believed the “reality” was different than Hyland’s characterizations and that her “unwillingness to grow” made it impossible to continue working together.

Before he became a pastor at Naperville Presbyterian, Ortlund was a publishing executive at Crossway. His hit bookGentle and Lowly is about Christ’s tenderness toward sin and failure. He is a third-generation pastor—the brother of pastor Gavin Ortlund and the son of pastor Ray Ortlund Jr. Naperville Presbyterian, a church of about 500, had been searching for a pastor externally for more than two years before it decided to make Ortlund, a member, its pastor.

Hyland now can either decide in the next 30 days whether the Illinois antidiscrimination agency will pursue a case against the church, whether she will file a suit herself, or whether she’ll pursue mediation.

This article has been updated to clarify language about the IDHR report.

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