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Determing Disability Discrimination

Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

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.

* A federal court in Iowa ruled that the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom prevented it from resolving a rabbi's claim that her dismissal violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and amounted to a breach of contract. A rabbi ("Beth") entered into an employment contract with a Jewish congregation for a period of three years. The contract specified that it could be terminated by the congregation for gross misconduct or an ongoing inability to perform the duties described in the agreement. According to the agreement, Beth's duties included leading religious services, serving as principal and teacher in the Hebrew school, visiting ill or confined congregants, satisfying pastoral needs of members, maintaining regular office hours, and writing newsletter articles.

Beth claimed that she suffered a physical disability related to a broken foot, which limited her ability to stand, walk, and move, and that she provided the congregation with a set of accommodations that would permit her to work. Despite her disability, she continued to perform her job duties in a manner that she believed met the congregation's expectations.

In fact, some congregational leaders were dissatisfied with her communication with congregants, office hours, pastoral care, and religious services. The congregation gave Beth a written memorandum of concerns regarding her job performance and provided specific instructions for the timeliness of returning phone calls and number of visits to ill or confined congregants. She responded with a written memorandum, stating she had posted her office hours and made every reasonable effort to return congregants' phone calls and messages. She also stated that the visitation requirements outlined in the memo were not reasonable, given her foot injury. A few months later, the congregation's board of directors determined that Beth's performance had not improved, and it voted to terminate her employment.

Beth insisted that she performed her job adequately at all times, despite her foot injury disability. She sued the congregation, claiming that its decision to terminate her violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and amounted to a breach of contract.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of disability. The ADA defines a "disability" as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Beth claimed that her foot injury met this definition. The congregation conceded that after her injury Beth used crutches and a cane to assist her mobility.

The court noted that an analysis of Beth's discrimination claim "quickly implicates whether the performance she was providing could meet her religious obligations. The issue is further complicated by the record of complaints regarding communication with congregants, pastoral care, religious services, and complaints … within and without the confines of the congregation. From this type of record, there understandably arises a reluctance of courts not only to avoid the ultimate entanglement but to avoid the essential inquiry." The court cited the following cases as examples of a judicial reluctance to decide if a church's decision to terminate a minister was discriminatory or based on legitimate performance-related concerns:

  • A federal appeals court held that a minister's age discrimination claim was properly dismissed because "the First Amendment prohibits the government from regulating internal church decisions about the promotion of pastors, because churches have broad discretion in determining who may speak for the church." The minister had asserted that since there was no church policy or doctrine in favor of age discrimination, there was no First Amendment implication in having a secular court decide his claim. The court concluded that it need not wade into the nuances of church policy, since as a determination of the church leader "is per se a religious matter. We cannot imagine an area of inquiry less suited to a temporal court." Minker v. Baltimore Annual Conference of United Methodist Church, 894 F.2d 1354 (D.C.Cir. 1990).
  • A federal appeals court dismissed a pastor's claims of racial and sexual discrimination in a church's hiring process. The court found the constitutional questions mandated refrain from inquiry into clergy selection: "The right to choose ministers without government restriction underlies the well-being of religious community, for perpetuation of a church's existence may depend upon those whom it selects to preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines." The court held that any governmental attempt "to restrict a church's free choice of its leaders thus constitutes a burden on the church's free exercise rights." Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164 (4th Cir. 1985).
  • A federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment precluded civil court review of a minister's sex discrimination claim. Calling the relationship between church and clergy the "lifeblood" of the church, the court determined that matters affecting that relationship are "of prime ecclesiastical concern" and thus outside the purview of the secular courts. McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir. 1972).
  • A federal appeals court ruled that "the overwhelming weight of precedent going back over a century" precluded it from intervening in a minister's race discrimination, sex discrimination and retaliation claims. The court concluded that a church's selection of its clergy is "primarily an ecclesiastical matter" that is the exclusive province of the church. The court determined that the First Amendment prohibits civil court review of church procedures regarding clergy employment decisions. Young v. Northern Illinois Conference of United Methodist Church, 21 F.3d 184 (7th Cir. 1994).
  • A minister alleged several physical and mental conditions but claimed he was able to perform his ministerial duties with slight accommodations. He sued the church pursuant to the ADA, asserting the church failed to accommodate his disability and that the failure to make reasonable accommodations forced him to resign. The court held that it could not consider such a claim, as it "clearly fits into this long recognized category of ministerial personnel decisions exempt from consideration by the civil courts," noting that the very act of decision was protected—even the reasoning behind such a decision was outside the legitimate purview of the court. Werft v. Desert Southwest Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, 377 F.3d 1099 (9th Cir. 2004).

Beth insisted that judicial resolution of a minister's disability discrimination claim is a neutral act involving no analysis of religious doctrine. The court disagreed, noting that "it is the very inquiry into those decisions that constitutes excessive entanglement with a church's internal affairs." The court noted that a resolution of Beth's claim would pit her theory of disability discrimination against the congregation's view that her termination was solely related to unsatisfactory performance of her religious duties. Resolving these competing claims would invite "improper scrutiny by the court of the congregation's expectations as a religious institution. Any such investigation presses the civil court to become excessively entangled in internal church affairs and is prohibited by the First Amendment." As a result, the court dismissed Beth's disability discrimination claim.

breach of contract

The court concluded that Beth's claim for breach of contract "similarly raises the compelling question of whether religious determinations are at issue or whether this is merely a civil contract dispute defined by the terms the congregation sought. Though the congregation's insistence on a contract document increases the stark nature of the legal collision, the result ultimately is the same."

Beth argued that the court should entertain her breach of contract claims because the congregation made numerous secular legal references in drafting the employment agreement, including (1) health and disability insurance, (2) the Internal Revenue Code, (3) insurance coverage by the congregation, (4) termination based upon gross misconduct, and (5) termination based on an inability to perform duties. In addition, the contract had an addendum which referred to certain statistics published by the U.S. Department of Labor regarding the calculation of Beth's annual compensation adjustment.

The court concluded: "Had Beth brought a claim for breach of contract based on the congregation's refusal to provide the agreed-upon insurance coverage or failure to make the annual compensation adjustment, it may well be that the court could adjudicate those claims by factual determinations that do not involve the court in internal, ecclesiastical matters. However, the congregation claims to have discharged her pursuant to misconduct and an inability to perform her duties. As the above analysis has repeatedly noted, the ability of church members to obtain clergy of their choosing is a matter of prime constitutional consideration and outside the proper inquiry of a civil court."

Application. This case is important for two reasons. First, it extends the so-called "ministerial exception" to ministers' claims of employer discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Second, the court concluded that the ministerial exception prohibits the civil courts from inquiring into the reason why a church dismissed a minister. The very act of deciding if a church's decision to terminate a minister was legitimately related to job performance, or illegitimately based on discriminatory intent, would impermissibly entangle a court in a matter of "prime ecclesiastical concern." Leavy v. Congregation Beth Shalom, 490 F.Supp.2d 1011 (N.D. Iowa 2007).

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