Clergy—Removal – Part 1

A Washington, DC court ruled that a lawsuit brought against a church by the dismissed principal of a church-operated school had to be dismissed as a result of the so-called “ministerial exception.”

Church Law and Tax2006-07-01

Clergy—removal – Part 1

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 Washington, DC court ruled that a lawsuit brought against a church by the dismissed principal of a church-operated school had to be dismissed as a result of the so-called “ministerial exception” that bars the civil courts from resolving employment disputes involving churches and clergy. A woman (Lauren) sued the Archdiocese of Washington under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (the DCHRA) alleging discrimination and retaliation based on race. Lauren contended that the Archdiocese had unlawfully terminated her contract as principal of a church-run school in the District. Specifically, she claimed that her termination was part of a program by the Archdiocese “to eliminate Caucasian principals and replace them with less-qualified African-American principals.” The Archdiocese asserted that the reasons Lauren had been terminated included her “lack of commitment to a full program of regular religious instruction” at the school and her “poor working relationship with the pastor” of the school parish. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on First Amendment grounds, concluding that so-called “ministerial exception” prevents the civil courts from resolving employment discrimination claims by ministers “and similar persons exercising religious functions” against the religious institution employing them. The trial court quoted from a federal appeals court’s description of the ministerial exception:

The right to choose a minister without judicial intervention underlies the well-being of religious community, 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 the world at large. Any attempt by the civil courts to limit the church’s choice of its religious representatives would constitute an impermissible burden on the church’s First Amendment rights. Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164 (4th Cir. 1985).

The court noted that the ministerial exception is not limited to ordained ministers, but “encompasses all employees of a religious institution, whether ordained or not, whose primary functions serve its spiritual and pastoral mission.” It concluded that a principal in a church-run school was a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception, noting that schools in the Archdiocese have a “pervasive religious mission” and that “the principal of each school has a significant religious and spiritual role in furthering that mission.”

A District of Columbia appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. It began its opinion by observing, “Although it would be difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of [the District’s] interest in assuring equal employment opportunities for all, regardless of race, sex, or national origin, abundant decisional law from this court and others confirms the constitutional imperative of governmental non-interference with the ministerial employment decisions of churches.”

The court rejected Lauren’s argument that most of her daily responsibilities were “administrative” and basically no different from those performed by her counterparts in public schools. It noted that merely enumerating the duties in Lauren’s job description, many under secular-sounding headings such as materials management and office management, tells us little about whether her position is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church. She was the chief administrator of an institution both educational and religious. Hence she would certainly be expected to perform numerous duties—secular in appearance—designed to meet public licensing requirements and to maintain the standing of the institution as school. But she was also principal of a Roman Catholic school, and thus she, more than anyone else at the school except the pastor, was answerable to the religious authorities for providing, in myriad ways not reducible to a listing of tasks, spiritual leadership in and for the school community. These many responsibilities—some predominantly “secular” and some predominantly religious—are inextricably intertwined in the school’s mission and in the principal’s role in fulfilling it.

The court also dismissed Lauren’s breach of contract claim against the Archdiocese, concluding that it, too, was barred by the ministerial exception. Pardue v. Center City Consortium Schools, 875 A.2d 669 (D.C. App. 2005).

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