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Ministerial Exception Prevents Court from Resolving Employment Dispute

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.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that it was barred by the "ministerial exception" from resolving an employment dispute between a church and its Director of Faith Formation. A church entered into a written, one-year employment contract with a woman (the "plaintiff") who served as its Director of Faith Formation. The contract described the plaintiff's duties, the annual salary and fringe benefits to which she would be entitled, the term of the contract, the facilities to which she would have access as Director of Faith Formation, and the procedures for employee evaluation and annual contract renewal. Additionally, the contract included provisions governing termination of the employment relationship. The contract provided:

The PARISH agrees that the DIRECTOR OF FAITH FORMATION shall not be discharged during the term of this contract, without good and sufficient cause, which shall be determined by the PARISH. The PARISH agrees that the Pastor of the PARISH will be responsible for giving the employee notice of any dissatisfaction with service or conduct. Dismissal may be immediate or within a time frame determined by the PARISH.

The church terminated the plaintiff's employment. It was undisputed that the plaintiff had been compensated for all services performed under the contract, and that she was a "ministerial employee" whose work was fundamentally tied to the church's religious mission.

The plaintiff sued the church, claiming it breached her employment contract by terminating her "without good and sufficient cause" as that term was defined by the contract. She sought monetary damages of $35,000, representing the salary she would have received but for her termination.

The church asked the court to dismiss the plaintiff's lawsuit on the basis of the "ministerial exception" which generally bars the civil courts from applying employment discrimination laws to hiring and firing decisions by churches involving clergy. A trial court agreed with the church and dismissed the plaintiff's claims. On appeal, the state supreme court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the plaintiff's claims:

[The plaintiff] seeks state court enforcement of a provision in a private contract in order to invalidate a church's reason for terminating her employment. However, the First Amendment grants religious institutions "independence from secular control or manipulation—in short, power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine" (quoting the United States Supreme Court's decision in Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church, 344 U.S. 94 (1952). Therefore, the plaintiff asks the state courts to engage in activity that the Constitution prohibits … .
It has been universally recognized that the First Amendment protects religious institutions' decisions about whom to hire as ministerial employees and when to terminate their employment. Accordingly, a terminated ministerial employee's complaint alleging that her religious institution employer terminated her for an improper reason is not viewed through the lens that we usually apply when examining the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Rather, the allegations in the complaint are viewed in the context of the First Amendment's proscriptions against state interference with religious institutions' choices of who shall be the voice of their faith … .
When a ministerial employee is terminated, the religious institution's decision about who shall teach its faith and how that shall be done are intertwined with the decision to terminate the employee. Courts can have no role in affirming or overturning such a decision based on the reason why the religious institution terminated the employment.

The court quoted from the United States Supreme Court's 2012 decision unanimously affirming the ministerial exception: "Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs." Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012).

The Wisconsin court concluded:

The First Amendment grants [a church] free choice in deciding that a ministerial employee should be terminated because it is that type of employee who will preach [religious institutions'] beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. As the Supreme Court has explained, when a ministerial employee sues her religious employer to contest the validity of the reason for which she was fired, "the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way … ."
Stated otherwise, if [the plaintiff's] claim is not dismissed, a court will be required to decide whether [the church] terminated her without "good and sufficient cause," within the meaning of those terms in the contract … . Furthermore, if a court were to award damages [to the plaintiff] the church would be required, by the state, to pay for its decision to terminate an unwanted ministerial employee. This, the First Amendment does not permit. As the United States Supreme Court has said, "an award of such relief would operate as a penalty on the church for terminating an unwanted minister, and would be no less prohibited by the First Amendment than an order overturning the termination."

What This Means For Churches:

This case is important because it extends the breadth of the ministerial exception to include breach of contract claims. The Supreme Court's ruling in the Hosanna-Tabor case in which it unanimously affirmed the ministerial exception involved the application of an employment discrimination law to clergy. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, like many other courts, have reached the logical conclusion that the reasoning supporting the application of the ministerial exception in the context of employment discrimination laws is equally applicable to other employment disputes involving churches and their ministers. DeBruin v. St. Patrick Congregation, 816 N.W.2d 878 (Wis. 2012).

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  • December 17, 2013

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