A federal court in Pennsylvania ruled that the so-called “ministerial exception” did not require the dismissal of a sex discrimination lawsuit.

Church Law and Tax2005-09-01


Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

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.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964

* A federal court in Pennsylvania ruled that the so-called “ministerial exception” did not require the dismissal of a sex discrimination lawsuit brought by a lay church employee whose duties were not primarily religious in nature. A female employee (Jill) of a local diocese of the Greek Orthodox Church in America sued both the diocese and national church on the basis of sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits employers engaged in interstate commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of a person’s race, color, national origin, sex, or religion. Jill was employed as “registrar” of the diocese, a position that involves the review of sacramental documents submitted to the diocese by priests. The registrar ensures that baptisms, weddings, divorces, and funerals are conducted and recorded correctly. If she noticed a problem, she notified the bishop of the diocese. She also reviewed the mail with the bishop on a daily basis, and drafted letters for his signature; corresponded with priests regarding the bishop’s schedule; received complaints and repeated them to the bishop, who then decided how to handle them; and corresponded with churches regarding their annual monetary contributions to the diocese. She also claimed that “budget tasks were heaped upon [her] from the diocese” and that she had been called upon to “mediate parochial problems” at churches in three cities.

Jill claimed that she was a victim of sex discrimination since she was not compensated according to her responsibilities. The church defendants insisted that Jill’s claim must be dismissed on the basis of the “ministerial exception” to civil rights laws. The court noted that the so-called ministerial exception was first articulated in a 1972 federal appeals court case as follows: “We find that the application of the provisions of Title VII to the employment relationship existing between … a church and its minister would result in an encroachment by the state into an area of religious freedom which it is forbidden to enter by the principles of the free exercise [of religion] clause of the first amendment …. Congress did not intend, through the non-specific wording of the applicable provisions of Title VII, to regulate the employment between church and minister.” McClure v. The Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir. 1972).

The court then described the two prevailing interpretations of the ministerial exception.

the primary duties test

In determining whether an employee is barred from bringing a civil rights claim by the ministerial exception, many courts have scrutinized the “primary duties” of the position. 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.”

the three-part test

More recently, a federal appeals court articulated an alternative three-part test, directing courts to weigh: (1) whether employment decisions regarding the position at issue are made largely on religious criteria; (2) whether the plaintiff was qualified and authorized to perform the ceremonies of the church; and (3) whether the plaintiff engaged in activities traditionally considered ecclesiastical or religious, including whether the plaintiff “attends to the religious needs of the faithful.” Starkman v. Evans, 198 F.3d 173 (5th Cir. 1999).

the court’s conclusion

The court concluded that Jill was not a “minister” under the primary duties test, and so her Title VII claim would not have to be dismissed under this test. It noted that in her role as registrar, she acted mainly as a record-keeper. While she collected and maintained church documents and ensured that they contained all of the necessary information, she could not independently rule on the doctrinal legitimacy of documents submitted to her. The court found these duties to be “primarily clerical and do not rise to the level of pastoral or ministerial duties. Filing and organizing documents, whether they are religious documents or tax forms, is a clerical function. Though defendants correctly note that she was responsible for ensuring that documents were in order, she performed a primarily clerical role in doing so. There is no evidence that her duties as registrar required any heightened religious knowledge or spiritual involvement.” The court noted that this conclusion was not changed by all of the other tasks that Jill performed, which again were largely clerical. With regard to her mediation of three church disputes, the court noted that there was no evidence that this was one of her principal duties. It concluded, “The mere fact that a lay employee discharges episodic religious duties does not shield a religious employer under the ministerial exception per se; under the [primary duties] test, the court scrutinizes the employee’s primary duties as a whole. If Jill in fact mediated a dispute between parishes, it was an isolated event and is not sufficient to make her a minister under the ministerial exception.”

The court also concluded that Jill was not a minister under the three-part test announced in the Starkman case, since (1) there was no indication that the decision to hire her was made on religious criteria; (2) she was not authorized to perform religious ceremonies; and (3) her duties were primarily administrative rather than religious, and her role in attending to the religious needs of the faithful, if any, was minimal.

The court concluded that for purposes of the ministerial exception,

whether an individual is important to the administrative functioning of the church is critically less significant than whether she is important to the spiritual functioning of the church. The lowest ranking nun or monk in the abbey is still a minister, whereas a clerical or administrative employee, no matter how indispensable, is not. Jill had many important roles within the church, and the bishop delegated significant responsibilities to her. But her primary duties were not sufficiently “important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church” to render her a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception.

Application. This case presents a helpful analysis of the ministerial exception. This exception, which has been applied by several courts in recent years, interprets the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom to bar the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and clergy. Many courts have applied this rule to lay employees on the basis of either the “primary duties” or “three part” tests summarized by the court in this case. It is important to recognize, as this court did, that there are limits to the application of the ministerial exception to lay employees. The fact that they have meaningful or important administrative duties is not sufficient. Their primary duties must contribute significantly to the religious ministry of the church. Patsakis v. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 339 F.Supp.2d 689 (W.D. Pa. 2004).

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