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Breach of Contract and the Ministerial Exception

Court agrees to hear church organist's breach of contract lawsuit.

Key point. 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 Pennsylvania court ruled that a trial court erred in dismissing a church organist's breach of contract lawsuit against her employing church on the basis of the "ministerial exception" without any analysis of the functions that she performed or their importance to the church's mission. A woman (the "plaintiff") was employed by a church as its organist. She and the church entered into a six-year contract, renewable annually, obligating her to play the organ for worship services in exchange for a weekly fee of $275. This arrangement continued for several years until the church unilaterally reduced her pay to $50 per week. The plaintiff sued the church for breach of contract. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff's complaint with the following observation:

We accept the argument of [the church] that [the plaintiff's] contract claim is barred by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which prohibits judicial encroachment upon decisions made by a religious institution concerning the employment of its ministers. Because the Roman Catholic Church views music as an integral part of Catholic worship, the Organist/Musical Director is considered a minister of the church. Therefore, this court has no jurisdiction.

A state appeals court reversed the trial court's dismissal of the case. It acknowledged that the "ministerial exception" precludes civil courts "from considering claims involving the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministerial employees, based on the institution's constitutional right to be free from judicial interference in the selection of those employees." The court noted that the ministerial exception "applies only to ministers, and whether a person is or is not a minister requires an evaluation of the person's actual functions within the church." The courts generally have applied a "ministerial-function" test under which the exception applies "if primary duties include teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision of participation in religious ritual and worship."

The court concluded that the trial court erred by ruling that because "the Roman Catholic Church views music as an integral part of its Catholic worship," anyone who holds the position of "Organist/Musical Director" is a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception. The court found "no basis in either state or federal cases applying the ministerial exception for such a per se classification based merely upon the person's title."

The court was unable to say, based on the evidence presented, whether the plaintiff's primary duties involved teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision of participation in religious ritual and worship, as required by the "ministerial function" test. Indeed, the evidence presented by the church "did not even establish that the Roman Catholic Church views music as an integral part of its Catholic worship," a point central to the trial court's decision.

Alternatively, the church asked that the appeals court affirm the trial court's decision based on Pennsylvania's presumption that all employment is "at-will." The church pointed out that the plaintiff signed a written contract with the church acknowledging her at-will status. The court rejected this argument, noting that the at-will doctrine only applies to employees hired for an indefinite term, and that the plaintiff had been hired for a six-year term, renewable annually.

Application. Many courts have ruled that the ministerial exception applies to church music directors. This court did not reject those rulings, but rather refused to adopt a rule that church organists and music directors are always deemed "ministers" for purposes of the ministerial exception. Instead, the court insisted that a "ministerial function" test must be applied to ensure that an employee in fact is functioning as a minister. It remanded the case back to the trial court with the instruction to decide, on the basis of the ministerial function test, whether the ministerial exception should bar judicial resolution of the plaintiff's claims. Cooper v. Church of St. Benedict, 954 A.2d 1216 (Pa. Super. 2008).

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

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Posted:
  • March 1, 2009