• Key point. Most courts recognize a "ministerial exception" to federal and state civil rights laws. This exception prevents the civil courts from applying federal or state civil rights laws to employment decisions made by churches and other religious organizations regarding clergy.
A federal court in Louisiana has issued an important ruling addressing the liability of a church for discriminating against a disabled person. A woman began her employment as choirmaster of a church in 1992, and thereafter became the director of music. While employed, she allegedly suffered from a variety of disabilities, including asthma, osteoarthritis of both knees, migraine headaches, and endometriosis. She claimed that the church refused to modify her work schedule to allow full recovery from knee surgery and, after she suffered chemical exposures from cleaning materials, refused to accommodate her chemical sensitivities. Her employment was terminated in May of 1995, and she sued the church and its pastor, claiming that she was discharged in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). The pastor insisted that the ADA only applied to employers, and therefore he could not be sued personally for violating it. The pastor and church both claimed that the woman's lawsuit was barred by the first amendment's nonestablishment and free exercise of religion clauses.
The pastor's liability under the ADA
The court agreed with the pastor that the ADA only applied to employers, and therefore the woman could not sue the pastor for violating the ADA since he was not her employer.