By Chelsea Bailey, CNN
(CNN) — A woman who interviewed for the position of senior pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City is suing the church and a former chair of the search committee for gender discrimination, court documents show.
Eboni Marshall Turman, an associate professor of theology and African American religion at Yale Divinity School and a former assistant minister at Abyssinian, says the decision not to hire her for the senior pastor position was motivated by gender discrimination, according to a complaint filed in US District Court in the Southern District of New York on December 29.
A search committee interviewed Turman and dozens of other candidates for the position following the death of longtime senior pastor Rev. Calvin O. Butts III in 2022, according to the lawsuit.
Last September, Turman said she was informed she wasn’t one of the five finalists for the position. All five of the finalists were male, the lawsuit states.
In a statement to CNN, the church denied the discrimination claims.
“Abyssinian Baptist Church, puts faith, fairness, integrity, and inclusivity at the center of all they do, and the search for a new pastor has been no different. As such, the church denies any allegations of discrimination and plans to continue to defend itself vigorously,” the church said in the statement.
More than 40 candidates “from diverse backgrounds across age, gender, and sexual orientations“ have been considered for the role during a “documented vetting process” by a committee comprised of mostly women. The committee published the criteria and requirements as part of the job posting to which Turman applied, the church said.
While Turman and “others were considered for the role because of their impressive backgrounds, she ultimately fell short of some key requirements for the role, where other finalist candidates prevailed and moved forward in the process,” the church said.
LaToya Evans, a spokeswoman for the Abyssinian Baptist Church, said Valerie S. Grant, who chaired the search committee, declined to comment on the lawsuit and referred CNN to the church’s statement. Grant is no longer listed as a member of the search committee on the church’s website. CNN has reached out to Turman for comment.
In the lawsuit, Turman claims Grant told her in writing that she would not be among the finalists for the position last September.
But the lawsuit states that Grant wasn’t authorized to do so without the entire committee’s authorization.
“Gender discrimination motivated the decision not to hire Plaintiff (Turman), a fact discussed openly during meetings of the Committee, including by Grant and another Committee member, who said that Abyssinian would only hire a woman as its Senior Pastor ‘over my dead body,’” the lawsuit says.
Some members of the committee had objected to excluding Turman from the finalist pool, citing gender discrimination, the lawsuit says. Committee members told Turman’s husband the decision was motivated by gender discrimination later when Turman complained on social media about not being considered as one of five finalists for the job, the lawsuit says.
At some point before Butts’ passing, Turman also alleges he praised her as the best and smartest minister he “ever had” but told her she would never become senior pastor because the church would never hire a woman for the role, the lawsuit states. Turman was ordained in 2007 at Abyssinian and served for a decade in different roles, including assistant minister, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for “lost wages, lost benefits, other economic damages, shame, humiliation, embarrassment, and mental distress,” as well as an injunction to prevent future gender discrimination in hiring.
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