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Unlawful Termination

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.


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.

* An Ohio court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving the claims of two former church employees that their church acted unlawfully in terminating their employment. A church terminated the employment of two employees (the plaintiffs). The plaintiffs sued the church for wrongful dismissal and for unlawfully retaliating against them for criticizing what they believed to be a discriminatory employment practice. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of the so-called ministerial exception to state and federal employment laws which "precludes any inquiry whatsoever into the reasons behind a church's ministerial employment decision."

The trial concluded that both plaintiffs were ministers, and so the ministerial exception applied. The court noted that one plaintiff had been employed by the church as its staff development director, which required her to oversee the spiritual well-being of the staff. She had been responsible for administering a "spiritual assessment" to applicants for employment with the church. The assessment examined an applicant's faith journey and spiritual development. She had been charged with evaluating an applicant's answers to the assessment to determine whether the candidate should advance within the hiring process. She had implemented the church's hiring policy, which mandated staff members' agreement with the church's statement of faith and guiding principles.

The trial court found that the other plaintiff had been employed by the church as an associate pastor, charged with "providing leadership, vision, values and direction; ensuring spiritual health and growth of attendees, maintaining Biblical Integrity among staff and leaders, supervising staff and directing the ministry areas toward the fulfillment of the Vision/Mission." This plaintiff had been a member of the church's senior leadership team, a body that developed the church's spiritual direction.

The trial court also noted that the church had issued ministry licenses to both plaintiffs. The ministry licenses stated that each of them was certified "as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ [and has] completed all the studies and has met all the requirements of this body for recognition of such office; further, by rite of license, he or she is duly licensed to perform all ministerial functions without limit as accorded by the laws of the land and in compliance with the ordinances of God's holy church as set forth in God's Holy Word." Both plaintiffs were certified by the state of Ohio as ministers authorized to solemnize marriages.

For federal income-tax purposes, both plaintiffs received a housing allowance from their church, which is only available to "a minister of the gospel."

A state appeals court agreed that the plaintiffs were ministers, and that the ministerial exception barred any review of their claims. It began its opinion by observing: "While we agree that matters regarding who should preach from the pulpit are fundamentally and unquestionably beyond the jurisdiction of secular courts … the cases demonstrate that all matters of the propriety of internal church discipline … whether taken against a clergyman or a church member, are beyond the jurisdiction of secular courts."

The court agreed with the plaintiffs that the church's "internal characterization" of them as "ministers" was not dispositive of their status for purposes of the ministerial exception, but if found "somewhat disingenuous" their argument that they were not ministers. The court noted that the trial court "did not rely solely on the church's labeling of [the plaintiffs]. Instead, in making its determination that [they] were ministers, the trial court considered their actual duties within the church, as well as their licensing as ministers with both the church and the state, and their utilization of ministerial tax exemptions."

Application. This case is important because of the court's practical approach to defining "ministers" for purposes of the ministerial exception. In agreeing with the trial court that the plaintiffs were ministers, the court stressed that a church's characterization of a person as a minister does not necessarily trigger the ministerial exception. Instead, a court must consider the functions the employee performs. The court listed three of them: (1) The plaintiffs' duties directly furthered the church's core mission and purposes. (2) The church had issued ministerial credentials to the employees, thus enabling them to perform the rites and ordinances of the church. (3) The plaintiffs were authorized by the state of Ohio to perform marriage ceremonies. (4) The church treated the plaintiffs as ministers for purposes of the housing allowance. Horine v. Vineyard Community Church, 2006 WL 3690309 (Ohio App. 2006).

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

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  • July 1, 2007

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