Key point 8-10.1 The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents them from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.
A federal court in Illinois ruled that a church’s director of music was a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception, and therefore it could not resolve his discrimination lawsuit against the church following his demotion.
The Catholic Bishop of Chicago hired an adult male (the “plaintiff”) in 1992 to serve as the director of music at a local Catholic church. In 2015, the plaintiff was demoted from a full-time position to a part-time position without benefits. As a result of the demotion, the plaintiff’s duties as director of music were taken away, meaning that he no longer participated in the budget process; he was not sent to Archdiocesan Music Committee activities; his access to the church became limited; he became responsible for maintaining his own music skills; he no longer taught music to the children at the church’s school; and he no longer held practices for the church choirs.
After the demotion, the plaintiff performed only the duties of organist at church functions. And, even as the organist, he no longer had any discretion in picking what music to perform during Mass. Instead, he played music selected by the parish pastor. Sometime after the demotion, the plaintiff was fired.
The plaintiff later sued the Catholic Bishop of Chicago, alleging national origin and age discrimination. In particular, he asserted that he was demoted from his position as director of music because he is Polish and due to his age, and then was fired when he complained about the demotion.
The bishop argued that all musicians at Mass—including the organist—”exercise a genuine liturgical ministry” by leading and sustaining the assembly’s “sung prayer.” The plaintiff claimed that instrumental music, including organ music, is not necessary to a Catholic Mass or worship, and that “as an organist with no discretion in what music was played or how he played it, his role was neither necessary nor ministerial—and in fact could be replaced with recorded music.”
The court agreed with the bishop and dismissed the case. It noted that the “ministerial exception” prevents the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and “ministers.” The purpose of the exception is to ensure that “the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful—a matter strictly ecclesiastical—is the church’s alone.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171 (2012). The court observed that the exception’s applicability depends on whether the employee qualifies as a “minister.”
Noting that a “minister” can be someone other than “the head of a religious congregation,” and that there is no “rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister,” the court cited the following factors to be considered in deciding if a church employee is a minister:
- Do a church employee’s job duties reflect a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission;
- The formal title given to the employee by the church;
- Whether the employee holds himself or herself out as a minister; and
- Whether the employee performed “important religious functions . . . for the church.”
The court quoted from an official Catholic paper on liturgical music: “All pastoral musicians—professional or volunteer, full-time or part-time, director or choir member, cantor or instrumentalist—exercise a genuine liturgical ministry. . . . These musicians serve the Church at prayer and are ministers who share the faith, serve the community, and express the love of God and neighbor through music. They are a valued and integral part of the overall pastoral ministry of the parish.” Even more specifically, the paper emphasizes the importance of the organ in worship: “Among all other instruments which are suitable for divine worship, the organ is ‘accorded pride of place’ because of its capacity to sustain the singing of a large gathered assembly, due to both its size and its ability to give ‘resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation.’ The organ ‘in some ways reminds us of the immensity and the magnificence of God.’”
The court concluded that the plaintiff “performed a ministerial function by performing organ music at worship and ritual ceremonies, and took part in conveying the church’s message to congregants.”
The plaintiff insisted that he was not a “minister” since he did not participate in picking music, and as an organist, he only “robotically played notes from sheet music.” The court disagreed. On the first point, the court noted that a lack of authority to pick music did not render a musician outside the ministerial exception. On the second point, “the plaintiff’s view of ’robotic’ music performance cannot overcome official church doctrine. . . . An accompanist who does nothing more than play the sheet music still performs a ministerial function.”
The court concluded that the plaintiff, a director of music in a Catholic church, was a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception, and therefore the court could not adjudicate his discrimination claims against the church.
What this means for churches
This case provides helpful guidance in the definition of the term “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception. In 2012, the United States Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the ministerial exception, but declined to define the term “minister.” That is understandable, since it would be difficult to fashion a definition that would apply in all cases. The Supreme Court left the definition of this essential term to other courts in other cases.
The court stressed that a “minister” can be someone other than “the head of a religious congregation,” and that there is no “rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister,” and proceeded to list four factors to be considered in deciding if a church employee is a minister: (1) Do a church employee’s job duties reflect a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission; (2) the formal title given to the employee by the church; (3) whether the employee holds himself or herself out as a minister; and perhaps most importantly (4) whether the employee performed “important religious functions . . . for the church.”
One other aspect of this case merits attention. The court placed great weight on the plaintiff’s job description. The importance of job descriptions in ministerial exception cases cannot be understated. Churches should review job descriptions, especially for non-ordained staff, to see if employees who might meet the definition of “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception have job descriptions that highlight and stress their religious functions. Sterlinski v. Catholic Bishop, 319 F. Supp. 3d 940 (N.D. Ill. 2018).
See also “Clergy—Discipline and Removal,” 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169275 (D.S.C. 2018), and “Ministerial Exception,” Lee v. Baptist Church, 903 F.3d 113 (3rd Cir. 2018), in Legal Developments section of the website.