• 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 it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious liberty from resolving a pastor’s claim that he had been dismissed by his church because he suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). A pastor sued his church, claiming that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by dismissing him on account of his Attention Deficit Disorder, dyslexia, and heart problems, without attempting to accommodate his needs. The pastor’s lawsuit demanded that the church reinstate him, and pay him monetary damages. The church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that it was barred by the “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws. A federal district court agreed with the church and threw out the case. A federal appeals court agreed with this disposition.
The appeals court noted that the ministerial exception “insulates a religious organization’s employment decisions regarding its ministers from judicial scrutiny …. It derives from the [first amendment religion clauses] and is intended to protect the relationship between a religious organization and its clergy from constitutionally impermissible interference by the government. Specifically, because clergy represent a religious institution to the people, a religious institution must retain unfettered freedom in its choice of clergy.”
The pastor insisted that the ministerial exception did not bar consideration of his claim that the church failed to “accommodate” his disability, as required by the ADA, since this claim was “not a personnel decision akin to hiring or firing.” The court disagreed: “The ministerial exception does not apply solely to the hiring and firing of ministers, but also relates to the broader relationship between an organized religious institution and its clergy …. Matters touching this relationship must necessarily be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern.” The court concluded that if the pastor were allowed to pursue his claims in civil court “the church would be required to provide a religious justification for its failure to accommodate and this is an area into which the first amendment forbids us to tread. We thus determine that the pastor’s claims, grounded in the church’s failure to accommodate his disabilities while he was still employed, are a part of the employment relationship between church and minister.”
Application. This case is important because it construes the ministerial exception to apply to “failure to accommodate” claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA imposes a legal duty upon covered employers (those engaged in commerce, and employing at least 15 employees) to provide “reasonable accommodation” to disabled employees to enable them to perform the essential functions of their job. Employers violate the ADA if they dismiss disabled workers without first attempting to provide “reasonable accommodations” that would enable them to work. The federal appeals court in this case concluded that not only does the ministerial exception bar the courts from resolving ADA disability claims brought by clergy against a church, but it also bars claims by disabled clergy that their employing church violated the ADA by failing to provide them with reasonable accommodations. Werft v. Desert Southwest Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, 377 F.3d 1099 (9th Cir. 2004).
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