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Disability Discrimination

The application of the ministerial exception to FMLA claims.

Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

Key point 8-06. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying civil rights laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.

* A federal court in Pennsylvania ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a church music director's claims that her employing church discriminated against her on the basis of her disabilities, and violated the Family Medical Leave Act. A woman (Ann) performed ministerial responsibilities as the director of music for a church. As its director of music, the church considered Ann to be a non-ordained liturgical minister who was an integral part of the pastoral and spiritual mission of the church and not simply a member of the custodial, clerical, or office personnel. Ann herself repeatedly referred to her employment as her ministry, and, eventually, she admitted that her responsibilities were ministerial in nature.

Ann claimed that she had a neurological disorder, and, as a result of her condition, was experiencing physical difficulties and decreased stamina and energy. She claimed that she approached the senior pastor of the church and requested a break from her employment as director of music. The pastor reportedly denied her request after she informed him that she did not know how long of a break she would need. Ann claimed that at that point she had no choice but to resign from her position, which she did in writing. Later, she requested reinstatement, which was denied. She then filed a "Charge of Discrimination" with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and later sued the church in federal court. She eventually dropped her disability claim, and proceeded with her Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) claim. The church asked the court to dismiss the case on the basis of the so-called "ministerial exception," which exempts employment relationships between religious institutions and their ministers from various federal employment laws. Ann argued that the ministerial exception did not apply to FMLA claims.

The court concluded that Ann's duties as director of music made her a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception, and that the ministerial exception applied to FMLA claims. As a result, the court dismissed Ann's FMLA claim.

The church sought a court order compelling Ann to pay its attorneys' fees. It based this request on Title 28, section 1927 of the United States Code, which specifies that "any attorney who multiplies the proceedings in any case unreasonably and vexatiously may be required by the court to satisfy personally the excess costs, expenses and attorneys' fees reasonably incurred because of such conduct." Specifically, the court noted that there must be "willful bad faith, which is evident when claims advanced were meritless, that counsel knew or should have known this, and that the motive for filing the suit was for an improper purpose such as harassment." The court concluded that the behavior of Ann's attorney was not "of an egregious nature, so stamped by bad faith that is violative of recognized standards in the conduct of litigation." It conceded that Ann's attorney "initially and obdurately refused to acknowledge that she was a minister in the church in the face of a significant evidentiary array that she was a minister and so considered herself, he ultimately acted reasonably by stipulating to that fact and by voluntarily dismissing the ADA claim."

Application. This case is significant because it is the first court to address the application of the ministerial exception to FMLA claims. The court concluded that the exception applies. This ruling will be directly relevant to any church or denominational agency having 50 or more employees (the minimum number of employees required for FMLA coverage). Fassl v. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, 2005 WL 3135921 (E.D. Pa. 2006).

* See also (1) "Defamation," Trice v. Burress, 137 P.3d 1253 (Okla. App. 2006); (2) "Sexual misconduct by clergy, lay employees, and volunteers," 2006 WL 1009283 (W.D. Wash. 2006), in the recent developments section of this newsletter.

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