Clergy Discrimination and the Courts

Courts will not get involved in discrimination disputes if it leads to “entanglement” of church and state.

Church Law and Tax 1995-05-01 Recent Developments

Employment Practices

Key point: The civil courts will not review complaints by clergy that their employers violated federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, age, or gender.

A federal court in the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit by a nun claiming that her employer, the Catholic University of America, discriminated against her on the basis of her gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A nun with a doctoral degree in canon law was employed as a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America. She applied for academic tenure after 6 years of teaching, and her application was denied. She later sued the University, claiming that its decision to deny her tenure amounted to sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A federal district court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that it was barred by the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion. The court began its opinion by observing:

The Supreme Court has held that the free exercise [of religion] clause provides religious institutions with the “power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” It precludes civil interference “with ecclesiastical hierarchies, church administration, and appointment of clergy.” Many hiring decisions within a religious institution determine “whose voice speaks for the church,” and there is no “area of inquiry less suited to a temporal court for decision.” Courts have developed a “ministerial function” test to determine whether a discrimination claim brought by an employee of a church or religious institution can be reviewed by a civil court. An employee whose “primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship” must look to elsewhere than to government agencies and courts for relief from race, sex, national origin, or age discrimination.

The nun insisted that the civil courts could resolve her discrimination case because she was not ordained. In rejecting this claim the court observed that “the mere fact of ordination is not determinative … [r]ather, it is the role or function of the employee that is critical.” The court noted that Catholic University is a religious educational institution, that the nun’s duties (teaching canon law) were religious, and that her duties were “the functional equivalent of the task of a minister.” The court observed that canon law “provides guidance for the members of the Catholic Church,” and accordingly “canon law is church doctrine.”

The court also ruled that allowing the nun to pursue her discrimination claim in civil court would violate the first amendment’s prohibition of the establishment of religion. Among other things, this provision prohibits “excessive entanglement” between church and state. Allowing a sex discrimination claim to be litigated against a religious school would lead to the kind of entanglement between church and state prohibited by the first amendment:

Entanglement also has already resulted from the interaction between a government agency, the EEOC, and Catholic University’s Department of Canon Law. In this action, the EEOC’s investigation lasted more than two years and presumably was sufficiently thorough to have inquired deeply into the issues that were later tried here. The first amendment precludes sustained involvement that “would result in an intolerably close relationship between church and state both on a substantive and procedural level” … . If this plaintiff can involve the EEOC and the court in the tenure decision at issue here, the prospect that others will follow portends impermissible “pervasive monitoring” of religious-freighted decisions of an essentially religious body …. “[T]here is the danger that [religious institutions], wary of EEOC or judicial review of their decisions, might make them with an eye to avoiding litigation or bureaucratic entanglement rather than upon the basis of their own … doctrinal assessments.” E.E.O.C. v. Catholic University of America, 856 F. Supp. 1 (D.D.C. 1994).

See Also: The Clergy-Church Relationship

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