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Ministerial Exception Prevents Court from Resolving Discrimination Lawsuit

The court ruled that the "ministerial exception" prevented it from resolving a lawsuit of a former principal at a Catholic high school claiming that the school's failure to renew her employment contract amounted to unlawful sex, age, and disability discrimination.

Last Reviewed: March 15, 2021
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 Indiana ruled that the "ministerial exception" prevented it from resolving a lawsuit of a former principal at a Catholic high school claiming that the school's failure to renew her employment contract amounted to unlawful sex, age, and disability discrimination.

A woman (the "plaintiff") served as a public elementary school principal for 17 years. In late July 2012, she was hired as the principal of a Catholic high school for the 2012-2013 school year. In late spring 2013, she was offered, and accepted, the position of school principal for the 2013-2014 school year. On March 3, 2014, the plaintiff was informed that her contract would not be renewed for the following year. The plaintiff sued the Diocese for employment discrimination based on sex, age, and disability as well as various state-law claims.

The plaintiff had signed a written one-year contract for each of the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years. The contract for the 2013-2014 school year included a "Ministerial Duties/Morals Clauses" that provided, in part:

To be [the] Principal in a Catholic school is to accept a ministry. The ministry of the Principal must clearly reflect the Catholic Christian spirit of love, understanding, and humility. This ministry is witnessed not only in the manner in which the Principal performs his/her tasks, but also in the example the Principal sets for the teachers and students both in and outside the School and parish, and including everyone associated with the School, parish, and diocese … . Furthermore, in carrying out his/her duties under this agreement, the Principal agrees to faithfully reflect the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, in mind and in deed, and at all times, both in and out of School, to abide by the official teachings of the church, as interpreted by the Bishop of the Diocese. [The] Principal understands that every subject taught in the School is embedded in Catholic theology and that part of the Principal's ministry in the School is to apply the theology, doctrine, and teachings of the Catholic Church in every aspect of the School and in every duty of a principal. Failure to comply with the terms of the Part A "Ministerial Duties/Morals Clauses" may result in the immediate termination of this contract.

The Diocese asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis of the "ministerial exception," which generally bars the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and ministers.

The plaintiff insisted that the ministerial exception did not bar her claims, since: (1) she was an educator in a Catholic environment, and most of her job responsibilities were similar to the 17 years she spent as a principal in a public school; (2) while the school where she was employed was a Catholic high school, it had multiple students who were not Catholic, including Baptist, Lutheran, and Jewish students; and (3) there were only two persons at her former school that held "ministry" titles: a chaplain, and the head of campus ministry.

The court agreed with the diocese that the plaintiff's claims were barred by the ministerial exception. It noted that the United States Supreme Court recognized the ministerial exception in a 2012 ruling. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and Sch. v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012). The Supreme Court reasoned:

The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. 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. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.

The Supreme Court held that the exception "is not limited to the head of a religious congregation" and declined "to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister" for purposes of the exception. Rather, the Court found the following four factors indicated that the plaintiff, who was a "called teacher" at a Lutheran Church and School, qualified as a minister under the facts of that case: (1) the Church held the plaintiff out as a minister; (2) the title reflected a significant degree of religious training; (3) the plaintiff held herself out as a minister; and (4) the plaintiff's job duties included important religious functions.

The Indiana court considered these four factors in finding that the plaintiff, as the principal of a Catholic high school, was a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception.

(1) The Diocese held the plaintiff out as a minister
In concluding that this factor was met, the court referred to the "Ministerial Duties/Morals Clauses" in the plaintiff's employment contract, which affirmed that "to be Principal in a Catholic school is to accept a ministry," and that "in carrying out his/her duties under this agreement, the Principal agrees to faithfully reflect the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, in mind and in deed, and at all times, both in and out of School, to abide by the official teachings of the church."
(2) A title that reflects religious training
The court noted that this factor weighed against ministerial status since there was nothing "inherently religious about the title of Principal."
(3) Plaintiff held herself out as a minister
In concluding that the plaintiff held herself out as a minister of the church, the court noted that she had accepted the principal position, which was explicitly described as one of ministry in the Employment Agreement that she signed. As a result, she knew that she was expected to "faithfully reflect the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, in mind and in deed, at all times, both in and out of School," and she agreed that "part of the Principal's ministry in the School is to apply the theology, doctrine, and teachings of the Catholic Church in every aspect of the School and in every duty of a principal." In other words, "she accepted that she would be seen as a ministerial leader."
The court concluded that this third factor was neutral in applying the ministerial exception.
(4) Important religious functions
The court conceded that there was no evidence that the plaintiff "performed religious functions such as leading daily prayers or teaching religion lessons," and concluded that this factor "weighs against applying the ministerial exception."

In attempting to refute her status as a minister, the plaintiff cited a dictionary definition of "minister" as a person whose job involves leading church services, performing religious ceremonies, and providing spiritual or religious guidance. The court countered: "It is irrelevant that she is not a member of the clergy and that she would not be considered a minister for purposes of Church governance" because "the issue here is one of civil, not canon, law, and 'minister' for purposes of the ministerial exception has a far broader meaning than it does for internal church purposes … . In determining whether an employee is considered a minister for the purposes of applying this exception, we do not look to ordination but instead to the function of the position," citing Alicea-Hernandez v. Catholic Bishop, 320 F.3d 698, 703 (7th Cir. 2003).

The court concluded:

Having considered all the evidence of record in light of the factors applied by the United States Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor, the Court finds that the ministerial exception applies to the plaintiff's role as principal of [the] High School. As noted in Hosanna-Tabor, a core value of the Free Exercise Clause is to "protect a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments." Although the plaintiff's title and training and the lack of evidence of involvement in religious activity weigh against applying the ministerial exception, the ministerial role assigned to and accepted by the plaintiff as the head of the Catholic High School are sufficient for the Court to apply the ministerial exception in this case … . Requiring [the] High School to reinstate the plaintiff as principal or by punishing it for not renewing her contract would violate the School's freedom under the [Constitution] to select its own ministers.
Thus, because the plaintiff was a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception, her federal employment claims must be dismissed.

What this means for churches

This case is important for two reasons.

First, the court applied the four-factor test enunciated by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor in deciding if the plaintiff was a "minister" subject to the ministerial exception. Note that the court concluded that the plaintiff was a minister, though only one of the four factors supported minister status (one was neutral, and two did not support minister status).

Second, the court declined to follow a dictionary definition of the term "minister" in evaluating the application of the ministerial exception. Instead, it noted that the term "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception "has a far broader meaning than it does for internal church purposes." Ginalski v. Diocese, 2016 WL 7100558 (N.D. Ind. 2016).

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Posted:
  • December 20, 2017
  • Last Reviewed: March 15, 2021

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