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Racial Discrimination

A federal district court in Georgia ruled that it was barred by the "ministerial exception" from resolving a dismissed minister's claim that his dismissal was a result of unlawful racial discrimination.

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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 district court in Georgia ruled that it was barred by the "ministerial exception" from resolving a dismissed minister's claim that his dismissal was a result of unlawful racial discrimination. A church hired a music minister (the "plaintiff") whose duties included the oversight of the church's music ministry, as well as the production of CDs, videos, and other audio-visual products. The church later terminated the plaintiff's employment based on overall dissatisfaction with his work. The plaintiff sued the church, claiming that his dismissal amounted to unlawful discrimination based on race.

The court ruled that the ministerial exception prevented it from resolving the plaintiff's claim. It explained the ministerial exception as follows: "The First Amendment prohibits a church from being sued by its clergy for decisions relating to its internal management and administration …. The relationship between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood, and thus an attempt by the government to regulate the relationship would infringe upon the church's right to be the sole governing body of its ecclesiastical rules and religious doctrine."

The court noted that the ministerial exception is not limited to ordained clergy, but also extends to any church employees whose primary duties consist of "teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship," or whose position is "important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church." The court noted that music ministers or directors have been deemed "ministers" under this expanded definition of "minister," thereby resulting in a dismissal of their employment-related legal claims. It concluded:

There can be little doubt that plaintiff's position … falls within the ambit of the ministerial exception. It is clear … that his position … is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church. His primary duties, which include supervising the worship arts department and directing the musical affairs of the church, involve church governance or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship, and are thus ecclesiastical in nature. As such, his race discrimination claim … would require this court to encroach into the internal affairs of church management and is thus barred by the ministerial exception of the First Amendment.

The court added that any resolution of the plaintiff's claims would force it to determine the validity of the senior pastor's distaste for plaintiff's music, and whether he was motivated by a genuinely religious or a racially discriminatory intent in terminating him. Indeed, "his opinion concerning the suitability of plaintiff's music could propel the court into a controversy … over what is suitable music for worship services … The First Amendment forbids that inquiry." Ross v. Metropolitan Church of God, 471 F.Supp.2d 1306 (N.D. Ga. 2007).

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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  • July 1, 2007

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