A woman’s lawsuit alleging gender discrimination may reconcile unanswered questions about the so-called ministerial exception.
To Christie Leonard, working at Gospel Crusade was the perfect fusion of vocation and spiritual call, where her talents and her faith could work in tandem.
“I was doing my dream job,” she said in a recent interview with Religion News Service.
Besides providing her income, the Gospel Crusade, which does international mission work and runs a conference center from its Bradenton, Florida, base, had immense spiritual significance for Leonard. Her family had attended classes at the Gospel Crusade’s church, and since 2000 Leonard had worshipped at The Family Church, a religious community at the conference center, called the Christian Retreat. She cites attending there as cementing her decision to become “a follower of Christ,” and her attachment only deepened when she began working at the Christian Retreat a few years later.
Which is why, she told RNS, she felt crushed when she was fired in 2019, despite giving what she said were 15 of her “best years” to the organization.
Worse, she claims her firing had nothing to do with her work ethic or her spiritual devotion, but rather rumors surrounding her sexuality and her relationship with a co-worker.
She said the firing felt as if “God was throwing me away.”
Christie Leonard worked with Gospel Crusade in different capacities for roughly 15 years. Courtesy photo
Leonard is now suing the Gospel Crusade, claiming her termination was driven by discrimination based on her gender and presumptions about her sexual orientation. The church has disputed her account in court, but the case is one of several that could test the reach of the “ministerial exception,” a legal workaround that exempts faith groups from nondiscrimination laws in hiring and firing as long as the employees in question are considered ministers — including, according to recent Supreme Court decisions, staffers such as Leonard who are not clergy.
Like many who work for small religious organizations, Leonard juggled multiple jobs at the Gospel Crusade. Initially hired as an hourly employee to help with video production, she later found herself assisting the group’s accounting team as well as working in human resources. By the time she was brought on as a salaried employee in 2017, she kept a cot under her desk for late nights spent editing video.
“I basically lived there,” she said.
About the same time, Leonard began working closely with a female colleague. According to Leonard, the two were in constant conversation and over time, she said, “we became almost inseparable.”
Their connection became a flashpoint, professionally and personally. Leonard said that her colleague’s husband “became jealous in some ways” of their relationship. Rumors began to circulate that the two women, who Leonard said were both struggling with marital difficulties, were in a “romantic relationship or a sexual relationship.”
The colleague’s husband, who served on the church’s staff, then allegedly took his concerns to the senior pastor of The Family Church at Christian Retreat, Phil Derstine, who reached out to Leonard’s husband.
Leonard insisted it was only after consulting with the two husbands that Derstine allegedly met with both women — not to talk about the situation, but to announce his decision: They could not spend any time together for 30 days. If they managed that, they could both attend a planned mission trip to Uganda in September 2018.
Pastor Phil Derstine records a “Purpose for Life” video segment. Video screengrab via Vimeo
Leonard said she and her colleague did as instructed and were able to take the trip together. But at a meeting while they were away, Gospel Crusade board members allegedly heard testimony from the colleague’s husband.
When the women returned, they did not immediately go to their respective homes. According to Leonard, her colleague went to a wedding while Leonard visited family out of state.
According to Leonard, Derstine promptly fired Leonard’s colleague but allowed Leonard to remain on staff — albeit as an hourly employee instead of a salaried employee, and with a caveat: She could not move in with her colleague.
“He said, ‘I have one other condition: You cannot live with that woman,” Leonard recalled, adding that he suggested she live with her brother.
This time, Leonard did not comply. The two women secretly moved in together, coinciding with what Leonard described as a campaign of harassment led by Derstine and others at Gospel Crusade.