• 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.
In a ringing endorsement of religious liberty, the United States Supreme Court in January unanimously affirmed the so-called "ministerial exception" barring civil court review of employment disputes between churches and ministers. The ministerial exception has been applied to a wide range of employment disputes by state and federal courts over the past half century, but has never before been addressed by the Supreme Court. This Feature Article will review the facts of the case, explain the Court's ruling, and evaluate the impact of the case on churches and church leaders.
A Michigan church (the "Church") affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) operated a small school offering a "Christ-centered education" to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The Synod classifies teachers into two categories: "called" and "lay." "Called" teachers are regarded as having been called to their vocation by God through a congregation. To be eligible to receive a call from a congregation, a teacher must satisfy certain academic requirements. One way of doing so is by completing a "colloquy" program at a Lutheran college or university. The program requires candidates to take eight courses of theological study, obtain the endorsement of their local Synod district, and pass an oral examination by a faculty committee. A teacher who meets these requirements may be called by a congregation. Once called, a teacher receives the formal title "Minister of Religion, Commissioned," and serves until his or her call is rescinded for cause and by a supermajority vote of the congregation.