The Ministry of Music

A federal court recognizes the central role of church music.

Church Law and Tax 2001-11-01

The Ministry of Music

A federal court recognizes the central role of church music-Employment Opportunity Commission v. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, 213 F. 3d 795 (4th Cir. 2000)

Article summary. A federal appeals court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment guaranties of religious freedom and the nonestablishment of religion from resolving a sex discrimination lawsuit brought by a dismissed church music director. This case demonstrates two important points. First, the civil courts will not resolve most employment disputes involving “ministers.” And second, the term “minister” may include nonordained church employees who perform religious functions essential to the church’s mission. This information is of direct relevance to church leaders, since it demonstrates that churches can reduce the risk of liability associated with the discipline or dismissal of employees by adopting job descriptions for staff positions linking employees’ duties to the furtherance of the church’s mission. This article reviews the court’s decision, and suggests how church leaders can reduce legal risks associated with the discipline or dismissal of employees.

Key point 8-06. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the first amendment prevents the civil courts from applying civil rights laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.

Key point 8-08. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion.

Key point 8-08.1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion. Religious organizations are exempt from the ban on religious discrimination, but not from the other prohibited forms of discrimination.

Over the past several years we have conducted numerous surveys of church litigation. These surveys have documented the increasing number of churches that have been sued for the wrongful dismissal of an employee. Today, wrongful dismissal lawsuits are among the most common forms of church liability. Some of these cases are brought by dismissed church employees who claim that their dismissal constituted a breach of contract. In other cases, dismissed employees claim that they were dismissed on account of their race, gender, age, disability, or some other protected status under state or federal law. The good news is that there are relatively simple precautions that church leaders can take to reduce the risk of liability associated with the dismissal of employees. A recent federal appeals court ruling demonstrates one such precaution. The case involved a church music director who was dismissed and who later sued her former church for sex discrimination. The court’s decision not only provides church leaders with information that will assist in reducing the risk of liability in similar cases, but in the process the court gave a stirring account of the importance of music in the ministry of the church. This article will review the facts of the case, summarize the court’s ruling, and evaluate the importance of the case to church leaders.


A woman (“Joyce”) was hired by a church as its music director. Joyce had a graduate degree as well as vocal and instrumental teaching certificates from the states of New York and North Carolina. In 1984, Joyce began teaching music at a private elementary school operated by the church. Her duties included overseeing two extracurricular musical performances each year, assisting in the music preparation for school liturgies, and playing the piano during worship services. In addition, she was responsible for the school choir and the school handbell choir. Her job also required her to serve as a resource person for all musical activities at the school.

In 1990, the church promoted Joyce to the newly created position of Director of Music Ministry. This position encompassed both responsibility for music at the church and teaching music at the church school. The job description for Joyce’s position stated that her major duties were “to assist in the planning of all parish liturgies; to direct the parish choirs; to teach the congregation to actively and vocally participate in the music of the parish.” Joyce’s duties also were described in a handwritten document agreed to by her and the pastor. This document, like the job description, assigned responsibility to Joyce for the music program of the church and church school. Among the duties listed were teaching at the school; supervising and directing choirs; and playing for holidays, weddings, and funerals. Joyce was also required to approve music for weddings even if she was not available for the ceremonies. She was also made part of the church’s worship committee and was required to attend the committee’s monthly meetings and participate in seasonal liturgy planning.

Over the next few years, Joyce filed four charges of discrimination with the EEOC, and the EEOC itself sued the church for discrimination on her behalf. These charges, along with the EEOC lawsuit, are described in the following paragraphs.

Claim #1

In 1992, a new pastor was assigned to the church. Joyce claims that from 1992 to 1995 the new pastor reassigned some of her duties to men, two of whom were not members of the church or its parent denomination. In 1995 Joyce filed a sex discrimination charge with the EEOC based on the reassignment of these duties to men.

Claim #2

In 1995 a “parish survey” revealed general dissatisfaction with the music program, and the parishioners voiced the need for improvement in the church’s music ministry. Later that year the pastor informed Joyce that the director of music ministry position was being redesigned and that she would no longer serve in the position. Upon her removal, Joyce filed a second charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging that she was terminated because of her sex and in retaliation for the previous charge of discrimination she had filed with the EEOC.

Claim #3

The church advertised the redesigned music ministry position, which was the full-time position of director of music ministries and organist. Joyce applied for this position, along with 42 other applicants. The search committee reviewed the applications and recommended a candidate who was a male. This candidate was hired by the pastor for the position. The church adopted a job description for the director of music ministries and organist position, which stated that this person would be “responsible for all music associated with worship” and directly accountable to the pastor. The job description underscored the relationship of music to the spiritual mission of the church. For example, the qualifications for this “liturgical minister” included not only musical experience and skill, but also “an ability to teach, to lead, and to evoke active participation of the people in all liturgical celebrations with their varied and differing musical styles.” Underlying all the qualifications was the need for “a thorough understanding of and love for the liturgy of the church and the relationship of music to the liturgical life of the church.”

The job description also listed two plainly spiritual objectives for the new director:

(1) “To assist in developing a prayerful, singing assembly through preparation, celebration, and evaluation, through education and personal ministry;” and

(2) “with the cooperation and assistance of all the parish ministers, the director of music ministries will support the Gospel message through song and challenge the assembly to live it more fully.”

The director was to carry out these religious objectives through specific duties such as: recruiting and training parish choirs and musicians; implementing new repertoire for the assembly; preparing a weekly worship plan in conjunction with the parish liturgy committee; and incorporating handbells into the work of the choirs.

The EEOC claimed that the job description for the new director’s position was quite similar to that for Joyce’s old position. Further, it stated that the new job was defined in practice no differently from the role formerly occupied by Joyce. According to the EEOC, the parish priest planned the liturgies, chose the scripture readings without input from Joyce, and had the authority to make final decisions concerning the music to be used for religious worship. The EEOC also claimed that the pastor acknowledged that the director did not have to be a member of the church or parent denomination.

In 1996, Joyce filed a third charge of discrimination and retaliation, challenging the church’s decision not to hire her for the new director’s position.

Claim #4

In 1997, Joyce was still employed as a part-time music teacher at the church school. However, she was demoted from a “regular part-time” teacher at the school to a “part-time” teacher. According to Joyce, she lost sick day and personal day benefits, as well as a tuition reduction for her children at the school as a result of this decision. Later that year Joyce filed a fourth EEOC charge of discrimination, alleging that she was demoted in retaliation for her previous charges.

The EEOC Sues The Church

In 1998 the EEOC filed suit on Joyce’s behalf against the church. It asserted claims of sex discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having 15 or more employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of sex. The EEOC requested that the church be ordered to pay Joyce compensatory and punitive damages, and sought to have its legal fees paid by the church.

The EEOC also sought a permanent injunction prohibiting the church “from reassigning the duties of any individual, demoting or failing to rehire any individual due to sex, or any other employment practice which discriminates on the basis of sex, and from retaliating against individuals who oppose discriminatory practices.”

The EEOC further asked the court to order the church “to institute and carry out policies, practices, and programs which provide equal employment opportunities for women, and which eradicate the effects of its past and present unlawful employment practices.”

A federal district court dismissed all Joyce’s claims on the ground that the “ministerial exception” to Title VII applied to Joyce, and therefore the first amendment barred any judicial resolution of her claim. The EEOC appealed.

The Appeals Court’s Ruling

A federal appeals court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the case. It began its opinion by noting that the ministerial exception “operates to exempt from the coverage of various employment laws the employment relationships between religious institutions and their ministers. This constitutionally compelled limitation on civil authority ensures that no branch of secular government trespasses on the most spiritually intimate grounds of a religious community’s existence.” However, it noted that

while the ministerial exception promotes the most cherished principles of religious liberty, its contours are not unlimited and its application in a given case requires a fact-specific inquiry. The ministerial exception does not insulate wholesale the religious employer from the operation of federal anti-discrimination statutes. For instance, the exception would not apply to employment decisions concerning purely custodial or administrative personnel. Rather, the exception shelters certain employment decisions from the scrutiny of civil authorities so as to preserve the independence of religious institutions in performing their spiritual functions. Where no spiritual function is involved, the first amendment does not stay the application of a generally applicable law such as Title VII to the religious employer unless Congress so provides. Our inquiry thus focuses on “the function of the position” at issue and not on categorical notions of who is or is not a “minister.” For example, we have expressly rejected any view that ordination is a prerequisite to the application of the exception, and courts have routinely applied the exception in cases involving persons other than ordained ministers. The general rule is that “if the employee’s primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship, he or she should be considered clergy.” A court must therefore “determine whether a position is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church” in order to decide whether the ministerial exception applies.

The court concluded that the ministerial exception applied to the position of director of music ministry in this case, since the position was ministerial in nature. The court stressed that though the “range” of the exception is limited to spiritual functions, it is “robust where it applies” and “precludes any inquiry whatsoever into the reasons behind a church’s ministerial employment decision.”

The court rejected Joyce’s claim that the ministerial exception did not apply to her since she was a mere “lay choir director and teacher, charged with the responsibility of training people to sing and perform music.” The court concluded its decision with a stirring description of the pivotal role of music in the ministry of the church:

The music ministry and teaching positions at issue are ministerial because the positions are important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church. The functions of the positions are bound up in the selection, presentation, and teaching of music, which is an integral part of [the church’s] worship and belief. The [first amendment’s free exercise of religion clause] therefore bars consideration of [this case]. To hold otherwise would require us to say that music is substantially devoid of spiritual significance in the life of the church. Such a view cannot stand in light of the role of religious music in worship and the record in this case. At the heart of this case is the undeniable fact that music is a vital means of expressing and celebrating those beliefs which a religious community holds most sacred. Music is an integral part of many different religious traditions. It serves a unique function in worship by virtue of its capacity to uplift the spirit and manifest the relationship between the individual or congregation and the Almighty. Indeed, the church has presented ample undisputed evidence affirming the centrality of sacred music to the [Christian faith] and the importance of music ministry to the faith community …. Thus, inasmuch as Joyce’s duties involve the expression of the church’s musical tradition, it is a fallacy to denominate them as merely secular. We refuse to demote music below other liturgical forms or to sever it from its spiritual moorings. We cannot say, for example, that the reading of scripture or the reciting of prayers is any more integral to religious worship than the singing of hymns or the intonation of chants. Whether spoken or sung, psalms lift eyes unto the hills. It is not for us to place the oratorios of Handel, the cantatas of Bach, or the simplest of hymns beneath the reading of the sacred texts from which they draw …. Nor can we privilege modes of religious expression that draw principally from the rational faculties, such as preaching or the teaching of theology, over those which summon the more lyrical elements of the human spirit. Indeed [as the Supreme Court once observed] “the inspirational appeal of religion in the guises of music, architecture, and painting is often stronger than in forthright sermon.” The efforts of a music minister or teacher can thus influence the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church as much as one who would lead the congregation in prayer, preach from the pulpit, or teach theology in school.

Joyce was clearly a pivotal figure in most, if not all, aspects of the musical life of the [church] and school. The various job descriptions for the music ministry positions, though not dispositive, unmistakably evince the religious significance of her music ministry. Joyce was required to assist in the planning of liturgies and was in charge of the parish choirs-functions at the very heart of the church’s musical life. The positions also entailed responsibility for recruiting choir members … and special musicians. The job description for the new music ministry position sought by Joyce-which Joyce claims was essentially the same as her own job description-emphasized that this “liturgical minister” must “assist in developing a prayerful, singing assembly” and “support the Gospel message through song and challenge the assembly to live it more fully.” The description also conferred upon the Director of Music Ministries responsibility “for all music associated with worship” and detailed a number of duties relating to the selection and presentation of liturgical music.

The significance of Joyce’s role in the selection and presentation of religious music is highlighted by the interplay between music and other liturgical forms. The music at religious worship services is often tied to the seasons of the church year or the day’s scripture readings. Indeed, Father O’Connor stated in his affidavit that Joyce’s role at the three weekly worship services was “to choose music that reflected and enhanced the theme of the Scriptures of the day and that would assist the assembly of believers in their individual journeys of faith.” Father O’Connor also stated that Joyce was involved in planning music for the special seasons of the year, such as Christmas and Easter, and for special feast days such as the Feast of Christ the King and the Feast of Pentecost. And even where Joyce did not select the music herself, the subtle judgments that accompany the presentation and interpretation of sacred music contribute to its spiritual effect.

Joyce also served as a representative of the church to the congregation. She played a prominent role in worship services and helped to lead the congregation in song. The significance of her role was reinforced by the fact that she was listed on the front page of the Parish bulletin under “Parish Staff,” along with the parish priests and a Pastoral Associate/Director of Religious Education. Joyce was thus a visible (and audible) sign of the church’s work through music, as well as a leader of the congregation in the church’s musical, and therefore spiritual, life.

The EEOC was persistent in its attempt to prove that the church had discriminated against Joyce. Its three main arguments, and the court’s responses, are summarized below.

The EEOC’s First Argument

The EEOC downplayed Joyce’s role in the liturgy, and made much of the fact that she was answerable to the pastor who had the ultimate say over the music to be played at worship. The court was not impressed. It noted that “the EEOC does not deny that Joyce played a major role in the presentation of music to the congregation. Further, there is no requirement that an individual have the ‘final say’ on spiritual matters before the ministerial exception can be applied. While the exercise of ‘religious discretion’ of this variety may be considered in determining whether a position is ministerial, it is not talismanic. Rather, it is enough that Joyce’s ‘primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith … or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship.”

The EEOC’s Second Argument

The EEOC stressed that the occupants of the music ministry positions were not required to be members of the church, and this diminished the religious significance of these positions. The court disagreed. It pointed out that

church documents, the relevant job descriptions, and [the pastor’s] affidavit reveal that religious criteria were significant in the hiring decision apart from the religious affiliation of the minister. For example, church documents state that “the pastoral musician … is a minister, someone who shares faith, serves the community, and expresses the love of God and neighbor through music.” And the job description for the new Director of Music Ministries position stated that the individual selected “must bring to the position a thorough understanding of and love for the liturgy of the church and the relationship of music to the liturgical life of the church.” There is no reason to believe that such criteria were not important in practice as well. [The pastor] himself stated that he chose the new Director of Music Ministries based on who he believed “could best accomplish the spiritual and pastoral functions of that position and who, through leading the musical praise, could challenge and promote the spiritual good of the assembly.”

The EEOC’s Third Argument

The EEOC also claimed that the religious significance of the hiring decision was somehow diluted by the pastor’s statement that the individual selected “must have the knowledge and ability to function in the position.” Once again, the court scoffed at the EEOC’s argument, noting that

the record is clear that the required “knowledge and ability” transcended merely secular matters. For example, church documents speak of the act of music ministry as a “threefold judgment”: (1) musical, (2) liturgical, and (3) pastoral. Indeed, it is not easy to divorce even the more technical aspects of music from its significance in religious worship. Whether a selection is played adagio or andante can have a profound effect on the religious worship and vocal participation of the congregation. And different performances of the same musical piece can evoke different responses …. [T]he role of the music minister “is so significant in the expression and realization of [the church’s] beliefs that state intervention in the appointment process would excessively inhibit religious liberty.” Put another way, Joyce was the primary human vessel through whom the church chose to spread its message in song. Employment decisions concerning her music ministry thus relate to “how and by whom [churches] spread their message.” These decisions lie accordingly beyond judicial competence.

The court concluded that the ministerial exception applied to Joyce’s duties at the church school as well. It observed, “[Joyce’s] duties at the [church] school appear to have gone far beyond the teaching of music classes. As she herself points out … she was responsible for the music program of the school and served as a resource person for all musical activities in the school. She also assisted in the music preparation for school liturgies and played the piano at [worship services]. She was responsible for the school choir and school handbell choir. These duties, coupled with the spiritual significance of her teaching role, render her position at the church school ‘ministerial’ for purposes of the exception.”

The court concluded, “[D]etermination of whose voice speaks for the church is per se a religious matter. This is no less true when the voice that speaks is the voice of song. The functions of the music ministry and music teaching positions in this case are integral to the spiritual and pastoral mission of [the church]. We are thus confronted with a case involving ecclesiastical decisions that the free exercise [of religion] clause of the first amendment places beyond the ken of civil courts.”

Relevance to Church Leaders

What is the significance of this case to church leaders? A decision by a federal appeals court has limited effect. It is binding only on lower federal courts within the same judicial circuit (which in this case includes the states of Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia). Nevertheless, the case represents one of the few extended discussions of the central role of music directors in the ministry of the church, and as a result it may be given special consideration by other courts. For this reason the case merits serious study by church leaders in every state. With these factors in mind, consider the following:

1. The ministerial exception. It illustrates both the vigor and extent of the “ministerial exception” to federal and state civil rights laws. This exception prevents churches from being sued, under federal or state civil rights laws, for employment decisions involving “ministers.” This case demonstrates that the exception is not limited to ordained clergy, but applies to any staff member whose primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, or participation in religious ritual and worship.

2. The importance of job descriptions. This case suggests that job descriptions for ministry positions should be reviewed to ensure that they adequately describe spiritual qualifications and duties. Doing so will reduce a church’s risk of expending substantial amounts of time and resources in defending against discrimination claims. This becomes even more relevant when one considers that most church insurance policies contain no coverage for such claims. As a result, most churches must retain and pay for their own attorney when sued for discrimination, and pay the entire amount of a judgment or settlement.

3. Application of civil rights laws to churches and other religious employers. The church in this case was sued for violating the ban on sex discrimination in employment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Employers, including churches, are not subject to Title VII unless they are engaged in commerce and have at least 15 employees. The church’s coverage under Title VII was not addressed by the court, and so the church must have conceded that it was a covered employer.

4. Insurance. It comes as a surprise to many church leaders that they do not have insurance to cover employment discrimination claims. This means that a church is responsible for retaining and paying its own attorney, and paying the full amount of any judgment or settlement.

Tip. Church insurance policies generally do not cover employment-related claims, including discrimination. If your church is sued for wrongful employment discrimination, you probably will need to retain and pay for your own attorney, and pay any judgment or settlement amount. You should immediately review your liability policy with your insurance agent to see if you have any coverage for such claims. If you do not, ask how it can be obtained. You may be able to obtain an endorsement for “employment practices.” Also, a “directors and officers” policy may cover these claims.

5. Retaliation. Many federal and state civil rights laws that ban discrimination in employment prohibit employers from “retaliating” against employees who oppose discriminatory practices or pursue claims of discrimination. Title VII contains such a provision. Therefore, it is a form of prohibited discrimination for a covered employer to “retaliate” against an employee for pursuing a charge of discrimination under Title VII with the EEOC. The court concluded, however, that the ministerial exception prevented the church from being guilty of sex discrimination in this case, and therefore it could commit unlawful retaliation against Joyce.

6. The ministry of music. The court’s lofty description of the importance of music in the life of a church is inspiring, especially coming from a federal appeals court (the second highest level of court in this country).

© Copyright 2001 by Church Law & Tax Report. All rights reserved. This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. Church Law & Tax Report, PO Box 1098, Matthews, NC 28106. Reference Code: m43 m47 m32 c0601

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

ajax-loader-largecaret-downcloseHamburger Menuicon_amazonApple PodcastsBio Iconicon_cards_grid_caretChild Abuse Reporting Laws by State IconChurchSalary Iconicon_facebookGoogle Podcastsicon_instagramLegal Library IconLegal Library Iconicon_linkedinLock IconMegaphone IconOnline Learning IconPodcast IconRecent Legal Developments IconRecommended Reading IconRSS IconSubmiticon_select-arrowSpotify IconAlaska State MapAlabama State MapArkansas State MapArizona State MapCalifornia State MapColorado State MapConnecticut State MapWashington DC State MapDelaware State MapFederal MapFlorida State MapGeorgia State MapHawaii State MapIowa State MapIdaho State MapIllinois State MapIndiana State MapKansas State MapKentucky State MapLouisiana State MapMassachusetts State MapMaryland State MapMaine State MapMichigan State MapMinnesota State MapMissouri State MapMississippi State MapMontana State MapMulti State MapNorth Carolina State MapNorth Dakota State MapNebraska State MapNew Hampshire State MapNew Jersey State MapNew Mexico IconNevada State MapNew York State MapOhio State MapOklahoma State MapOregon State MapPennsylvania State MapRhode Island State MapSouth Carolina State MapSouth Dakota State MapTennessee State MapTexas State MapUtah State MapVirginia State MapVermont State MapWashington State MapWisconsin State MapWest Virginia State MapWyoming State IconShopping Cart IconTax Calendar Iconicon_twitteryoutubepauseplay