• 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 it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a church music director’s disability discrimination claim. A non-ordained female church music director (the ‘plaintiff’) took a leave of absence due to a neurological condition. A year later, her request to be reinstated as music director was denied. She sued her church for unlawful discrimination based on disability. The court ruled that the so-called ‘ministerial exception’ to discrimination laws applied in this case, and prevented it from resolving the plaintiff’s claim. It noted that ‘the Free Exercise [of Religion] Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution precludes the application of the Americans with Disabilities Act … and all other employment laws to religious organization employees such as ministers, teachers and other individuals whose duties are integral to the spiritual and pastoral mission.’ Since the plaintiff’s responsibilities as director of music were ‘significant to the spiritual and pastoral mission of that church,’ her case ‘fell squarely within the ministerial exception.’ The court noted that an employee need not be ordained for the ministerial exception to apply, and that the courts ‘routinely have applied the ministerial exception in cases involving individuals who were not ordained, but whose duties were those functionally equivalent to those of a minister.’
The plaintiff also claimed that the church had violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and that the ministerial exception did not preclude this claim since no court had ever addressed this issue. The court disagreed: ‘The upshot of her position seems to be that because no court has ever directly applied the ministerial exception to the FMLA, her FMLA claim should be permitted to move forward. The court finds no logic or legal argument to distinguish the Free Exercise Clause principle upon which the ministerial exception is based with regard to an application of that rule to some laws proscribing employment discrimination but not to others.’
The court took the extraordinary step of encouraging the church to file a motion seeking the payment of its attorneys’ fees by the plaintiff. The court pointed out that the plaintiff’s status as a ‘minister’ for purposes of the ministerial exception was so clear that the plaintiff’s lawsuit against the church was frivolous. It concluded: ‘Because it may be that this entire matter is the result of maintaining a frivolous filing, the court will entertain an application by the church for an award of attorneys’ fees and costs for having had to defend this case.’
Application. The court’s application of the ministerial exception to a music director was foreseeable. What is exceptional about this case was the court’s conclusion that the application of the ministerial exception to the plaintiff’s claims was so clear that her lawsuit was frivolous, and its invitation to the church to file a motion seeking the reimbursement of its attorneys’ fees by the plaintiff. Many churches are sued each year by persons who would be deemed ‘ministers’ under the ministerial exception. In many of these cases, the church has no insurance to cover the lawsuit and must secure and compensate its own attorney, often at significant cost. This case suggests that such cases are so frivolous that a court may compel a plaintiff to pay the church’s attorneys’ fees. Of course, this possibility should be mentioned to a plaintiff, and his or her attorney, at the earliest opportunity. A reference to this case would be helpful. Roman Catholic Church, 2005 WL 2455253 (E.D. Pa. 2005).
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