Clergy – Part 4


Church Law and Tax 1989-07-01 Recent Developments

Clergy – Removal

A federal district court ruled that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom barred the application of the “Age Discrimination in Employment Act” to the relationship between a church and its minister. A Methodist minister had served a local church from 1950 until 1973, at which time he began working by special appointment as a vocational counselor in Washington, DC. In 1982 the minister asked his “annual conference” (a geographical subdivision of the United Methodist Church) to return him to a pastoral appointment, and in 1983 he assumed the pastorate of a local United Methodist Church. The local church could only afford to pay the minimum salary required by the annual conference, which was significantly below what a minister of his experience and qualifications ordinarily was paid. The minister’s district superintendent allegedly assured him that he would be moved to a more suitable congregation at the earliest time possible. The minister’s repeated requests for a new pastoral assignment were denied by the annual conference. Thinking that the denial of his requests had been based on his age (63), the minister sued the annual conference alleging a violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (which generally prohibits discrimination on the basis of age by employers with 20 or more employees). Besides money damages, the minister sought a court order prohibiting the United Methodist Church from practicing age discrimination and requiring it to implement a systematic program of performance evaluation of clergy. The federal court granted the church’s motion to dismiss the case. The court observed that “the Supreme Court has consistently held that courts must refrain from resolving essentially ecclesiastical disputes. This refusal to interject judicial judgment into matters of ecclesiastical concern is necessary to avoid ‘excessive government entanglement with religion.'” The court found nothing in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act that warranted an exception to the general rule. On the contrary: “This case involves the fundamental question of who will preach from the pulpit of a church, and who will occupy the church parsonage. The bare statement of the question should make obvious the lack of jurisdiction of a civil court. The answer to that question must come from the church.” The court acknowledged that the government’s interest in preventing employment discrimination “is compelling,” but it concluded that such an interest “does not override” the protection that the church claims under the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. Similarly, the court ruled that the minister’s demand for a court order requiring the United Methodist Church to implement a program of performance evaluation of clergy “falls within the purview of the Church.” This case illustrates the principle that application of civil rights statutes to the pastor-church relationship is barred by the constitution. It is not as clear whether civil rights laws apply to non-minister church employees. Minker v. Baltimore Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, 699 F. Supp. 954 (D.D.C. 1988).

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