A federal appeals court ruled that a “press secretary” was barred by the “ministerial exception” from suing her church for employment discrimination.

Church Law and Tax2004-01-01

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.


* A federal appeals court ruled that a “press secretary” was barred by the “ministerial exception” from suing her church for employment discrimination. A woman (Gloria) was hired by the Archdiocese of Chicago (the “Church”) to fill the post of Hispanic Communications Manager. Her duties included: composing media releases for the Hispanic community; composing correspondence for the Cardinal; developing a working relationship with the Hispanic media and parishes in the Hispanic community to promote church activities; developing a working relationship with the Hispanic community to enhance community involvement; composing articles for church publications; and translating church materials into Spanish. After working for nearly a year, she resigned her employment. She later sued the Church, claiming that while she was employed she was discriminated against on the basis of her gender and national origin as well as retaliated against for filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint. She based these claims on allegations of poor office conditions, the Church’s attempts to prevent her from rectifying those conditions, exclusion from management meetings and communications, denial of resources necessary for her to perform her job, and “constructive discharge” and subsequent replacement by a less qualified male who received a higher salary and a more significant title for the same position.

A federal district court dismissed Gloria’s lawsuit, and she appealed. A federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of the case. The court applied the so-called “ministerial exception” to civil rights laws, which generally provides that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents the civil courts from meddling with the relationship between a church and its clergy. Was Diana a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception? If so, the case had to be dismissed. The court concluded that she was. It observed,

In determining whether an employee is considered a minister for the purposes of applying this exception, we do not look to ordination but instead to the function of the position. The question for us to answer therefore is whether Gloria’s position as Hispanic Communications Manager can functionally be classified as ministerial. She suggests that we also need to look to the nature of her claims and whether the discrimination in question was exclusively secular. Here she is mistaken. The “ministerial exception” applies without regard to the type of claims being brought.

The court noted that “it is therefore not our role to determine whether the Church had a secular or religious reason for the alleged mistreatment of Gloria. The only question is that of the appropriate characterization of her position.” The court concluded that while Gloria was not an ordained priest or minister, she had to be treated as a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception and therefore her lawsuit had to be dismissed. It concluded,

Whether the ministerial exception applies to the position of press secretary is a novel question in this circuit. Although the parties cite numerous cases dealing with positions such as teachers, music directors, and youth counselors, the cases provide limited guidance in making the determination required here. Unlike those positions, a press secretary is responsible for conveying the message of an organization to the public as a whole. A press secretary, as is evident from observing various public officials and entities, is often the primary communications link to the general populace. The role of the press secretary is critical in message dissemination, and a church’s message, of course, is of singular importance …. Indeed, the rationale for the ministerial exception is founded upon the principle that “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.” Gloria served as a liaison between the Church and the community to whom it directed its message. As Hispanic Communications Manager, Alicea-Hernandez was integral in shaping the message that the Church presented to the Hispanic community. We therefore conclude that she served a ministerial function for the Church and her claims are therefore barred by the first amendment. We note that the realities of the position and not the title render her position ministerial. As the Church acknowledges, if she had simply served in the capacity of translating the message from English to Spanish, this would be a different case; but she was responsible for both crafting the message and determining how best to reach the Hispanic community.

Application. This case illustrates the following two 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.” Alicea-Hernandez v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 320 F.3d 698 (7th Cir. 2003).

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