Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Teacher Sues School for Age and Sex Discrimination
In many cases, non-ministerial employees may sue churches.
New Jersey
Key point. The first amendment prohibits the civil courts from applying federal or state discrimination laws to the clergy-church relationship. However, most courts have ruled that this prohibition does not extend to church employees who are not ministers or who perform no ministerial functions.
A New Jersey court ruled that a lay teacher could sue a Catholic high school for age and sex discrimination. The teacher had been employed from 1983 to June of 1991 to teach English and history. In 1991 she was informed that her position was being eliminated due to "budget problems". The teacher sued the school, claiming that the real reason she was being terminated was because of her gender and age (in violation of federal nondiscrimination law). As proof, she alleged that the school later replaced her with a younger, male teacher. The school defended itself by insisting that all teaching positions at a Catholic high school are "religious" in nature, and that the first amendment prohibits the civil courts from applying civil rights laws to such positions. In support of its position, the school noted that the contract signed by its teachers stated that all teachers are to "exemplify Christian principles and ideals" in the performance of their duties, and are to open each class with prayer. Further, the school asserted that "parochial school teachers, no matter what the subject matter being taught, are performing a ministerial function … inculcating faith, values, and moral precepts into the students" and that "secular subjects in a parochial school are important vehicles for the propagation of the faith." The court acknowledged that civil rights laws cannot be applied to ministers or lay employees performing ministerial functions for a church or religious school. It quoted the prevailing test as follows: "[I]f the employee's primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship, the first amendment precludes judicial resolution of the dispute." However, the court concluded that the lay teacher in this case did not satisfy this test. It observed:

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Posted: May 1, 1997
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