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Minister's Racial Discrimination Claim Dismissed

Court rules that the First Amendment bars it from resolving the claim.

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 appeals court ruled that it was barred by the "ministerial exception" from resolving a racial discrimination claim brought by a minister against his church. An ordained priest (the "plaintiff") claimed that his supervising bishop misapplied canon law in denying him a promotion and, ultimately, in terminating him. The plaintiff, who is African-American, also claimed his termination was racially discriminatory in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court concluded that the lawsuit was clearly barred by the ministerial exception, since:

  • It could not "imagine an area of inquiry less suited to a temporal court for decision [than] evaluation of the 'gifts and graces' of a minister." Minker v. Baltimore Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, 894 F.2d 1354, 1357 (D.C.Cir.1990).
  • The inquiry which [the plaintiff] would have us undertake into the circumstances of his discharge would plunge an inquisitor into a maelstrom of Church policy, administration, and governance." Natal v. Christian & Missionary Alliance, 878 F.2d 1575 (1st Cir. 1989).

The court concluded that "the presumptively appropriate remedy in a Title VII action is reinstatement, but it would surely be unconstitutional under the First Amendment to order the Catholic Church to reinstate, for example, a priest whose employment the Church had terminated …" Rweyemamu v. Cote, 520 F.3d 198 (2nd Cir. 2008).

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

Related Topics:
  • September 1, 2009

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Essential Guide to Employment Issues for Church Boards
Essential Guide to Employment Issues for Church Boards
Covers selection and screening, dispute resolution, terminations, discrimination, and minimum wage.