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Are Parochial School Teachers Ministers?

Court rules that ministerial exception does not apply to teacher in Catholic school.

Key point. Some courts have not recognized the ministerial exception, usually because the complainant was not a minister in either status or function, or was employed by a secular organization.

A Wisconsin court ruled that the so-called "ministerial exception," which generally bars the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and clergy, did not apply to a first grade teacher in a Catholic parochial school. A woman (the "plaintiff") was employed as a first-grade teacher at a parochial school from 1974 until 2002. In 2002, when the plaintiff was 53 years old, the school informed her that her employment contract would not be extended for the next year. The plaintiff filed a complaint with a civil rights agency, claiming age discrimination under a state fair employment law. The school asked the agency to dismiss the complaint on the ground that it was barred by the ministerial exception since the plaintiff's position was ministerial in nature and therefore any resolution of her complaint would violate the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom. The agency concluded that the ministerial exception did not apply, and a trial court agreed. The school appealed.

A state appeals court ruled that the ministerial exception did not apply in this case, for the following reasons:

First, the court concluded that teaching positions in church schools are not necessarily ministerial in nature, and that "a general exemption for teachers in religious schools would be more expansive than warranted when considered in light of the magnitude of the state's interest in the enforcement of antidiscrimination laws."

Second, the court noted that the principal test for deciding whether a particular position is ministerial in nature is whether the person's "primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship." The court concluded that "a religious teacher's duty to model and support particular religious values is not in itself one of the duties included in the primary duties test: it does not constitute teaching or spreading the faith …." The court added: "We do not question the dedication of teachers in religious schools to fulfilling this role. However, the duties in the [test] are intended to distinguish, from other employees of churches or religious organizations, those persons whose relationship to the church or organization is such that employment decisions regarding them will likely involve ecclesiastical decisions or matters of church government, faith and doctrine. Modeling and supporting religious values does not provide a distinction that serves this purpose."

Third, "even if in some cases the teaching of secular subjects might be so infused with religious doctrine that it would constitute the teaching of the faith, we are persuaded that is not the case here." The court noted that the textbooks used by the school were non-religious, and that the plaintiff was not engaged in "teaching the faith within the meaning of the primary duties [test]."

Fourth, the duties included within the primary duties test were not the plaintiff's primary duties. The religion class, prayers, and participation with her students in liturgies "do not constitute the primary part of her work day and they are not the primary focus either of the job description or the job evaluation."

Fifth, "not applying the ministerial exception in this case is consistent with the fundamental purpose of the exception." Because the plaintiff's primary duties "do not implicate matters of church faith and doctrine, the prospect that employment decisions will implicate those matters is significantly diminished. This, in turn, affects the balance between the free exercise right and the important policies underlying [state law]. We are persuaded that a bar to adjudication of the plaintiff's discrimination claim is not warranted based on the nature of her position."

The court cautioned: "Our conclusion that the plaintiff's position is not ministerial does not mean that [the school] would have no First Amendment protection if an employment decision concerning her did implicate a matter of church faith or doctrine." Coulee Catholic Schools v. Labor and Industry Review Commission, 752 N.W.2d 341 (Wisc. 2008).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, March/April 2009.

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  • March 1, 2009

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