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The Ministerial Exception and Racial Discrimination

Civil courts are prevented from applying employment laws to ministers.

Key Point 8-10.1. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.

A North Carolina federal court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a minister's claim that his denomination engaged in unlawful racial discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An African-American minister (the "plaintiff") was employed by a state synod ("regional church") as a missions director. He claimed that he was subjected to racial discrimination and a hostile work environment and that the conditions became so intolerable that he was ultimately forced to resign. He filed a claim of discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), but the EEOC dismissed this claim on the basis of the so-called "ministerial exception" which prohibits civil courts and agencies from resolving employment disputes between churches and clergy. The plaintiff thereafter sued his denomination in federal court, alleging racial discrimination and hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as state law claims for constructive discharge, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The court dismissed the plaintiff's claims on the basis of the ministerial exception. It noted that his responsibilities as missions director were "directly involved in fulfilling the church's purpose of receiving, establishing, and supporting congregations to bear witness to the Gospel and to carry out God's mission. The specific responsibilities … include working to advance and spread the Gospel and assisting other individuals to carry on outreach work, which includes developing new congregations and supporting existing congregations and ministries."

The court explained the ministerial exception "precludes application of Title VII to employment decisions relating to members of the clergy and others whose primary duties are religious in nature." It quoted from an earlier federal appeals court ruling which it described as the "seminal case on the ministerial exception":

The relationship between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood. The minister is the chief instrument by which the church seeks to fulfill its purpose. Matters touching this relationship must necessarily be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern. Just as the initial function of selecting a minister is a matter of church administration and government, so are the functions which accompany such a selection. It is unavoidably true that these include the determination of a minister's salary, his place of assignment, and the duty he is to perform in the furtherance of the religious mission of the church. McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir.1972).

The court noted that the ministerial exception has been applied not only to ordained ministers, but also by non-ordained individuals 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." It concluded that the plaintiff was a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception, and as a result his lawsuit had to be dismissed:

As mission director, plaintiff's duties clearly consisted of "teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship." Moreover, many of his allegations relate to office space, meeting attendance, presentation of work plans, telephone messages, leadership selection, lack of communication, and the approval of religious groups. These allegations relate directly to internal church governance, which the First Amendment protects from outside interference. d in McClure,

The court again cited the McClure case:

An investigation and review of such matters of church administration and government as a minister's salary, his place of assignment and his duty, which involve a person at the heart of any religious organization, could only produce by its coercive effect the very opposite of that separation of church and State contemplated by the First Amendment.

The court also ruled that the ministerial exception required a dismissal of not only the plaintiff's Title VII claim, but also all of his state law claims.

In rejecting the plaintiff's argument that the ministerial exception did not apply in this case because the court would not have to intrude upon the spiritual functions of the church in addressing his claims, the court observed: "It is not the court's role to determine whether the church had a secular or religious reason for the alleged mistreatment of [plaintiff]. The only question is that of the appropriate characterization of [his] position." Gomez, 2008 WL 3202925 (M.D.N.C. 2008).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, July/August 2009.

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  • July 1, 2009

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