United States: Tackling "Race" Discrimination: A Jewish Baptist Seeks Protection Under Title VII

"I have never, ever, received any taunts or any form of anti-Semitism. And I suppose being a Jewish football player with the Atlanta Falcons was no different than being a Baptist football player with the Atlanta Falcons. But in the back of your mind, you always expect something to happen."

- Bill Goldberg (Jewish former professional football player and professional wrestler).

Bill Goldberg meet Joshua Bonadona. "Something" happened to Bonadona -- who was born Jewish but converted to Christianity during college -- that caused this football coach to file a lawsuit against his alma mater, Louisiana College, and its President, Dr. Rick Brewer, alleging, among other claims, discrimination based on race under 42 U.S.C.§ 2000e-2 et seq. ("Title VII").1 In a July 13, 2018 decision, Magistrate Judge Mark L. Hornsby of the United States District Court, Western District of Louisiana, denied a motion to dismiss Bonadona's race discrimination claim under Title VII, making the precedent-setting determination that because "many people have and continue to view being Jewish as a racial identity[,]" Jews "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[.]"  Bonadona v. Louisiana College, et al., 7/13/18 Decision, Case No. 1:18-cv-00224 (DDD/MLH)(W.D. La.) p.10-11.

After graduating from Louisiana College in 2013, Bonadona was hired and worked at the school as an assistant football coach until he left to pursue an advanced degree and football coaching position at another college in 2015. When Louisiana College hired a new head football coach in 2017, that coach sought to re-hire Bonadona.  Although self-identifying as a Baptist on his application for the new coaching job, when asked by Dr. Brewer in his subsequent interview about his parents' "religious affiliations," Bonadona confirmed the "'widely known fact'" from his playing days at Louisiana College that, although he had converted to Christianity, his mother Miriam -- an "active" supporter of the team -- was Jewish.  The new head coach unqualifiedly recommended hiring Bonadona after the interview, but Bonadona learned that Dr. Brewer would not approve his hiring because of his "'Jewish descent,'" or as Dr. Brewer put it, Bonadona's ""Jewish blood.'"

In resolving the motion to dismiss Bonadona's race claim under Title VII, Judge Hornsby was presented with a set of peculiar facts that compelled the Court to consider and determine the narrow question of whether Jews were entitled to the protections of Title VII that prohibit discrimination exclusively based on race.  Specifically, in Bonadona's filing of a charge for discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Bonadona alleged that he was rejected because of his "race (Caucasian-Jewish)," and checked only the box for "race" as the basis for the alleged discrimination.  Furthermore, because Bonadona had converted and practiced Christianity at the time he applied for the job, his complaint did not (and could not legitimately) allege any discrimination based on observance of the Jewish "religion."  Nor did Bonadona allege a claim based on national origin.  Moreover, and most notably, Dr. Brewer's expressed objection to hiring Bonadona was exclusively tied to his "descent" and his "blood," i.e. simply because Bonadona was born a Jew.

Faced with these facts -- and noting that neither Title VII itself, nor the United States Supreme Court, has defined "race" in connection with discrimination claims -- Judge Hornsby surveyed a number of cases which addressed analogous claims by various ethnicities under Title VII and related statutes: Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb, 481 U.S. 615 (1987) (overruling the appellate court that did not consider Jews a separate race, and holding that Congress intended to protect Jews under 42 U.S.C. § 1982); Village of Freeport v. Barella, 814 F.3d 594 (2d Cir 2016) (holding that meaning of "race" in connection with Title VII claims is a "question of law for the court[,]" and that Hispanicity could support claims for racial discrimination because race "encompasses ethnicity" under Title VII as it does pursuant to § 1981); T.E. v. Pine Bush, 59 F.Supp.3d at 354 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (holding that Jewish plaintiffs can assert national origin or race claims under § 1981 or § 1982); and St. Francis v. Al-Khazraji, 481 U.S. 604 (1987) (considering an Iraqi-born professor's discrimination complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, which caused the Court to analyze certain scientists' claims that racial classifications are largely "socio-political" and not biological).  With its ruling though, the Bonadona Court set aside scientific and socio-political questions and answered the legal question of whether Title VII -- which, unlike § 1981 or § 1982, prohibits practices that have a disparate impact -- bars race-based discrimination against Jews in the affirmative.  On this basis, the Court allowed Bonadona's claims of racial discrimination under Title VII to proceed to the discovery stage.

The implications of this ruling could be far reaching for Jews and other ethnic groups, and the questions it gives rise to perhaps even more so.  Jews who practice other faiths, secular Jews, and atheist Jews may now be able seek protection against racial discrimination under Title VII based on their birth ethnicity -- if they are the victims of discrimination on that basis.  But, what about non-Jews who convert to Judaism, yet do not practice Jewish religious observances of any sort?  Will Title XII's provisions protect them (and analogous other plaintiffs of other ethnicities) like offensive linemen Alan Veingrad (Dallas Cowboys) and Harris Barton (San Francisco 49ers) might protect quarterback Sid Luckman (Chicago Bears)?  Joshua Bonadona will have to take his litigation over the goal line before those questions are answered.


1. The statute provides that it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer "to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin ..." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 (a)(1).

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