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Judge affirms a church's right to give preference to members when hiring

The decision of a federal judge in Massachusetts affirms the right of a religious organization to give preference to its ''co-religionists'' in hiring practices.

The recent ruling of US District Judge A. David Mazzone holds that the Christian Science Church has a right to give preference to Christian Scientists in hiring personnel for its newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, under an exemption in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - which recognizes the rights of religious organizations under the First Amendment.

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Judge Mazzone stated the publication of the Monitor is a ''religious activity of a religious organization'' and it is ''permissible for the Monitor to apply a test of religious affiliation to candidates for employment.''

Mark Feldstein, who is not a Christian Scientist, applied for a reporting job with the Monitor in 1979. He had been told by the church personnel department that nonmembers were hired only in circumstances where qualified church members were not available. Mr. Feldstein, however, requested a job application. The latter contains a written notice stating that the church is permitted by law ''to apply the test of religious qualifications to its employment policies.''

When the applicant was turned down for a job, he filed suit alleging that he was not given full consideration because he was not a Christian Scientist. He contended that the Monitor was not a religious activity and that the 1972 amendment to the Civil Rights Act - which extends the religious exemption to secular activities of religious organizations - violated the First Amendment.

In deciding this case, Judge Mazzone did not find it necessary to determine the constitutionality of the 1972 ''secular activity'' amendment because he found that the Monitor is, in fact, a religious activity of the Christian Science Church.

''Not every endeavor that is affiliated . . . with a recognized religious body may qualify as a religious activity of that body and come within the scope of the protection from governmental involvement that is afforded by the First Amendment,'' the jurist said. ''At the same time, however, a religious activity of a religious organization does not lose that special status merely because it holds some interests for persons not members of the faith, or occupies a position of respect in the secular world at large,'' Judge Mazzone added.

While agreeing with the assertion ''that the Monitor holds itself out as an objective and unbiased reporter of world news and events,'' the court said it ''cannot ignore the close and significant relationship existing between the Christian Science Church, the (Christian Science) Publishing Society, and the Monitor.'' It found the ''conclusion inescapable that the Monitor is itself a religious activity of a religious organization, albeit one with a recognized position and an established reputation in the secular community.''

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