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Fired Teacher Prevented from Suing Religious School for Discrimination

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 South Carolina ruled that the “ministerial exception” prevented a dismissed teacher at a religious school from suing the school for discrimination. A Christian school offers undergraduate, graduate, and seminary programs. The school considers itself a “religious ministry.” As a result, all of its programs, including its undergraduate and graduate programs, “emphasize spiritual development, biblical training, and ministry skills.” The school’s academic catalog describes the university as follows:

We are a dynamic university that trains Christians for global missions, full-time vocational Christian ministry in a variety of strategic professions, and marketplace ministry. . . . We were founded for the purpose of preparing students “to know Him and to make Him known,” as our motto states. That purpose remains the same today. All programs emphasize spiritual development, biblical training, and ministry skills development. . . . We are a multi-denominational Christian institution of higher education dedicated to preparing world Christians to serve God with excellence. Its educational units offer degree programs ranging from associate level to doctoral level. All postsecondary programs emphasize spiritual formation, mastery of biblical content and interpretation skills, cultivation of a biblical worldview, ministry skills development, and vocational competency.

The school requires its faculty members to express and model its Christian beliefs as a part of their regular teaching responsibilities. This includes setting “an example of unqualified [yieldedness] to the Lord Jesus Christ,” a “truth” that “must be consistently, positively taught” in formal and informal settings, including the chapel program, special conference periods, classes, personal relationships, and when counseling students. All employees are required to adhere to the school’s mission, doctrinal statement, core values, and lifestyle policies, and employees can be disciplined for their failure to adhere to them.

A woman (the “plaintiff”) was employed as a full-time faculty member from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2014, in the school’s “English as a foreign language” program. During her tenure, the plaintiff participated in prayer at faculty meetings, attended chapel, commented on the content of chapel messages to faculty and students, led students in prayer and reading of Scripture, integrated Christian perspectives and biblical materials into her courses, modeled Christ-like living and ministry to the students, and prepared students for ministry roles.

In 2014, the plaintiff was informed that, due to budget cuts, her position was being eliminated. A year later she sued the school, alleging unlawful discrimination.

A federal district court ruled that the plaintiff’s discrimination claims were barred by the ministerial exception since (1) the school was a religious employer, and (2) the plaintiff’s position was ministerial in nature. The court noted that the United States Supreme Court had recently affirmed the ministerial exception. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171 (2012). The Supreme Court observed:

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 court concluded that the plaintiff was a minister and so her claims were barred by the ministerial exception since:

  • the school represented to the public that the plaintiff’s duties were religious in nature,
  • the plaintiff’s training and education in the ministry,
  • the plaintiff’s duty of conveying the school’s message and carrying out its mission,
  • the spiritual leadership functions of the plaintiff’s position, and
  • the plaintiff’s primary duties consisted of teaching and spreading the faith, and her position was clearly viewed as important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the school.

What this means for churches

This case is significant for three reasons.

First, it demonstrates that the ministerial exception is not limited to churches. It applies to any religious employer “whose mission is marked by clear or obvious religious characteristics.”

Second, the court noted that the ministerial exception is an affirmative defense that must be asserted in a religious employer’s formal answer to a lawsuit or it will be lost. Obviously, this is an important point to bear in mind. Church leaders should review the answer prepared by their attorney in an employment discrimination case to be certain that the ministerial exception is raised as an affirmative defense. Trial attorneys with little, if any, experience in representing religious employers may not be familiar with the ministerial exception, or with its status as an affirmative defense that must be pleaded or lost.

Third, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that she was not a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception because the school’s “Educational Philosophy & Responsibilities Guide” provides that women are not assigned to teach required courses in Bible or theology because of the interpretation of Christian scripture of some students and faculty members. The court simply observed that “application of the ministerial exception is not limited to employees who teach courses in scripture and theology.” 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169275 (D.S.C. 2018).

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  • April 30, 2019

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