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The Ministerial Exception and Sex Discrimination

The First Amendment generally prevents courts from resolving church employment claims.

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 federal court in Texas ruled that it was barred by the ministerial exception from resolving a dismissed seminary professor's claim that her dismissal was a result of unlawful sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A religious seminary hired a female professor (the "plaintiff") in its School of Theology. She soon was elevated to the rank of assistant professor, which was a tenure-track position. The plaintiff was the only female to teach in the School of Theology. In 2003 the seminary hired a new president. The president met with the plaintiff, and assured her that his appointment would not jeopardize her position. Some of the members of the seminary's board of trustees expressed concern over whether hiring a woman to teach in the School of Theology was consistent with the church's teaching that "while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by scripture." The plaintiff's employment was the result of a compromise between members of the board of trustees that resulted in placement of a limitation on her scope of employment to the teaching of Hebrew and Aramaic grammar, syntax, and exegesis. The compromise included an expression that the purpose of her position was "to help students gain facility in the handling of the Hebrew and Aramaic text of the Old Testament." The courses plaintiff taught during her employment as a non-tenured member of the faculty were limited pursuant to the compromise. Even with the compromise, there were members of the board of trustees who opposed her presence on the faculty.

In 2006 the plaintiff was informed by the seminary that "her contract was terminated, effective December 31, 2006." The plaintiff alleged that the president informed her that his reason for not renewing her contract and for not recommending her for tenure was that she was a woman. The chair of seminary's board of trustees later informed a local newspaper that hiring a woman to teach men was a "momentary lax of the parameters."

The plaintiff sued the seminary, claiming that her termination constituted unlawful sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court dismissed the plaintiff's claims on the basis of the ministerial exception as well as the broader "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine":

The courts are prohibited by the First Amendment from involving themselves in ecclesiastical matters, such as disputes concerning theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required. If the claim challenges a religious institution's employment decision, an important inquiry is whether the employee is a member of the clergy or otherwise serves a ministerial function. If the answer is "yes," the "ministerial exception" applies, thus preventing court review of the employment decision without further question as to whether the claims are ecclesiastical in nature. The court has concluded that a review by this court of the employment decision of [the seminary] concerning plaintiff's employment is prohibited by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as well as the ministerial exception.

The record clearly establishes that seminary is a "church" and that plaintiff is a "minister" as contemplated by the ministerial exception doctrine. Moreover, the record establishes as a matter of law that the employment decision made by defendants concerning plaintiff was ecclesiastical in nature. If the court were to allow plaintiff's claims to go through the normal judicial processes, the procedural entanglements would be far-reaching in their impact upon seminary as a religious organization. The substantive implications of resolution by the courts of a dispute such as the one presented by the instant action would constitute an inappropriate state intrusion into an area where seminary has a legitimate claim to autonomy in the elaboration and pursuit of its own beliefs and practices ….

The court is satisfied … that the decision … to terminate plaintiff was religiously motivated. No rational finder of fact could make a finding to the contrary. The employment decision was the product of a sincerely held religious belief on the part of members of the Board of Trustees; and, the summary judgment record so strongly supports such a finding that no reasonable finder of fact could find otherwise. There is no counterbalance that would outweigh the interest evidenced by the First Amendment in protecting the sanctity of the decision-making of defendants that resulted in the termination of plaintiff's employment. The seminary must be free to decide for itself, free of interference of the courts, matters of church governance, such as the identities of those who will be permitted to teach courses in the preparation of students for church ministry.

The plaintiff alleged several other claims against the seminary besides sex discrimination, including breach of contract, fraud, and defamation. The court ruled that these claims were also barred by the ministerial exception. 543 F.Supp.2d 594 (N.D. Tex. 2008).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, September/October 2009.

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  • September 1, 2009

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