Clergy Removal

A federal appeals court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a claim that a church had engaged in unlawful sex discrimination.

Church Law and Tax2003-05-01

Clergy Removal

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.
Church Members

* A federal appeals court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a claim that a church had engaged in unlawful sex discrimination by dismissing a non-ordained female youth pastor because of her “marriage” to another woman. An Episcopal church hired a female youth pastor (Lee Ann) whose job description was to direct a youth program incorporating “fellowship, education, service, and worship.” The church did not require its youth pastor to be a member of its denomination, but it did require that the youth pastor have “a belief that Jesus is Lord and an ability to share that with youth in a constructive and non-oppressive manner.” Lee Ann quickly became involved in the youth ministry of the church. She led a youth mission trip to an Indian reservation, and planned numerous recreational and spiritual events. Her first “performance appraisal” noted that she was “inspirational to youth and loves youth; ministers to parents as well as youth.” About a year after beginning her duties as youth pastor, Lee Ann had a “commitment ceremony” with her partner who was a female pastor of another area church. This ceremony violated Episcopal doctrine embodied in the “Lambeth Resolution.” This Resolution was the result of a meeting held every ten years by the bishops from the worldwide Anglican communions which gather in Lambeth, England. The Lambeth Resolution provides:

This Conference … in view of the teaching of Scripture … (b) upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage; (c) recognizes that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation … [and] we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptized, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ; (d) while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals … (e) cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same-sex unions, nor the ordination of those involved in such unions ….

The church held a series of congregational meetings to discuss Lee Ann’s status. As it turned out, an overwhelming majority of those who spoke at the meetings supported Lee Ann. At one meeting, Lee Ann declared, “Some people say that it is not sinful to be a homosexual, but that it is sinful to engage in a homosexual relationship. This thinking is flawed for if it is really ok to be gay, then it would not be wrong to engage in a healthy, committed relationship …. Few people are called to celibacy—God gives us all desires for companionship, intimacy, for someone to share joys and sorrow with—to grow old with. I am no different. And I am blessed to have found someone like [my companion] …. The issue of homosexuality and inclusivity are at the forefront of every major denomination and threaten to tear the church apart. I want to scream out—we cannot continue to act in ways that are bigoted, intolerant, unloving, un-Christlike—because of teachings that are based on centuries of misunderstanding and prejudice.” Despite strong congregational support in favor of retaining Lee Ann, the church dismissed her as a result of her “marriage” to another woman. Lee Ann sued her church, claiming that it had discriminated against her on the basis of her sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A federal district court dismissed her claim on the ground that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom bars the civil courts from resolving disputes involving the dismissal of clergy. Lee Ann appealed, and a federal appeals court affirmed the dismissal of the lawsuit. The court observed,

Courts have held that churches have autonomy in making decisions regarding their own internal affairs. This church autonomy doctrine prohibits civil court review of internal church disputes involving matters of faith, doctrine, church governance, and polity …. The principles articulated in the church autonomy line of cases also apply to civil rights cases. For example, courts have recognized a ministerial exception that prevents adjudication of Title VII employment discrimination cases brought by ministers against churches. The right to choose ministers is an important part of internal church governance and can be essential to the well-being of a church, “for perpetuation of a church’s existence may depend upon those whom it selects to preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines both to its own membership and to the world at large ….” The question that we must resolve in the case before us, therefore, is whether the dispute … is an ecclesiastical one about “discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law,” or whether it is a case in which we should hold religious organizations liable in civil courts for “purely secular disputes between third parties and a particular defendant, albeit a religiously affiliated organization.”

The court concluded that “when a church makes a personnel decision based on religious doctrine, and holds meetings to discuss that decision and the ecclesiastical doctrine underlying it, the courts will not intervene.”

The court rejected Lee Ann’s argument that the Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling in the Smith case effectively abolished the ministerial exception. Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). In the Smith case the Court ruled that “neutral laws of general application” do not violate the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom even if they impose substantial burdens on the exercise of religion. Lee Ann argued that this ruling meant that civil rights laws can be applied to churches and clergy without violating the first amendment, since such laws are “neutral laws of general application.” The court disagreed, noting that several federal appeals courts “have examined whether the ministerial exception survives in light of Smith and each has concluded that it does.” Further, “the ministerial exception cases rely on a long line of Supreme Court cases affirming the church autonomy doctrine, which protects the fundamental right of churches to decide for themselves matters of church government, faith, and doctrine. These cases’ rationale extends beyond the specific ministerial exception to the church autonomy doctrine generally, and we therefore find that the church autonomy doctrine remains viable after Smith.”

Application. This case illustrates the following three points: (1) The ministerial exception has been almost universally recognized by both federal and state courts, and it provides churches with virtual immunity from employment discrimination claims by current of former ministers. (2) The term “minister” is not limited to ordained clergy, but can include lay employees “whose primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order or participation in religious ritual and worship.” (3) The ministerial exception survived the Supreme Court’s decision in the Smith case. The fact that civil rights laws are “neutral laws of general application” does not mean that they can be applied to the minister-church relationship. Bryce v. Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Colorado, 289 F.3d 648 (10th Cir. 2002).

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