Tuesday, 16 June 2009


That question, of course, leads to others: When, and why, do religious organizations forbid their employees to divorce?Police have charged Christopher Coleman, a former employee of Joyce Meyer Ministries, with killing his wife and two children last month in their Columbia, Ill., home. A week after the murders, the Post-Dispatch disclosed that Coleman was having an affair. Soon after that, he resigned from his position working security with Joyce Meyer Ministries, a nonprofit evangelical organization based in Jefferson County. Coleman, 32, has pleaded not guilty.
Parents disclosed Wednesday that on the day of the murders, Coleman told his girlfriend that his wife, Sheri Coleman, would be served with divorce papers. In sworn testimony Wednesday, Columbia Police Chief Joe Edwards said: "Joyce Meyer Ministry does not employ people who get divorced." He said if the Colemans had divorced, Christopher Coleman "would end up losing his job." Calls to the ministry's headquarters were not returned, and an attorney for the ministry refused to speak on the record about the ministry's policy about divorce. Last month, however, a ministry spokesman said "a violation of moral conduct" led to Coleman's resignation.

Three former employees of the ministry described the no-divorce policy for the Post-Dispatch, though they couldn't say whether it was a written rule, or just an ingrained part of the Joyce Meyer Ministries culture. They said that people who have already gone through a divorce can be hired to work at the ministry, but that anyone divorced while working at the ministry is let go.

The ministry "hires people who have broken lives, who are divorced, who've been drug addicts," said George Wise, who said he worked for Joyce Meyer Ministries from 2001 to 2003 as a video specialist. The ministry uses testimonials from believers to attract others to the organization, including one from a woman whose relationship "ended in a painful divorce."

"I started to watch Joyce Meyer every chance I got," she writes. "God started to transform me and heal my broken heart."Wise said he'd been divorced twice by the time he was hired by Meyer and then married a colleague at the ministry. When that marriage didn't work out, he said, he was fired three days after his divorce was finalized."Everyone I ever knew that worked there and got divorced ... was fired," Wise said.

Professor Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia who has written about religion and marriage, said a no-divorce policy is not unusual in Christian organizations whose employment guidelines are structured according to their faith."Some more traditional, typically evangelical Protestant or fundamentalist Protestant institutions ... have a policy relating to an employee's personal conduct," Wilcox said.

"For some of those institutions that conduct can encompass marital infidelity or divorce, and you could be sanctioned as a consequence."All of which is completely legal. "There is no law in Missouri that forbids discrimination on the basis of marital status," said Mary Anne Sedey, an employment attorney at Sedey Harper.

Eric Sowers, an employment attorney at Sowers & Wolf, said he'd never heard of anyone at a secular organization fired over marital status. He said religious organizations are exempt from the Missouri Human Rights Act. Wilcox said the First Amendment gives religious institutions wide latitude "to shape their employment policies so they're consistent with their religious teachings.

"Church leaders use a handful of passages from the Old and New Testaments as the Scriptural basis for such policies, including verses from the Gospels in which Jesus, referencing Genesis, said married people "are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."Most Christian scholars believe that after taking into account all the relevant biblical passages, Jesus said divorce was acceptable only in cases of adultery.

Christian leaders have struggled ever since with putting that message into practice, especially in clear cases of marital abuse.

"The big issues are the permitted grounds for divorce and whether or not one can remarry while the former spouse is alive," David Instone-Brewer, author of "Divorce And Remarriage in the Church," said in an e-mail message. "There are a few Christian teachers who would say that no believer may ever divorce, even if their spouse was committing constant adultery."Edwards, the Columbia police chief, testified Wednesday that Christopher Coleman has told authorities he had a good marriage, with a difficult period a year ago that was resolved with marriage counseling.

Despite the concentrated effort to keep Christian marriages together, a 2008 study from the Barna Research Group shows evangelical, or "born again" Christians divorce at the same rate as the rest of the American population — about 33 percent of all marriages.

Joyce Meyer said in her book she divorced her first husband, a part-time car salesman who cheated on her, in 1966 when she was 23. She calls it an "emotionally abusive first marriage" on her website. In an article on her ministry's website, Meyer wonders, "How many marriages could have been saved from divorce if husbands and wives had been willing to show love by serving one another."