Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
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.

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