• 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 appeals court ruled that the “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws prevented it from resolving an age discrimination lawsuit brought by a church music director against his employer. A diocese employed a man (Richard) as its music director and organist. The job description for the position required him “to assist the office of divine worship in preparing and celebrating various diocesan liturgies” and “in planning and celebrating liturgical events as requested.” The description of his church job required him to play the organ for masses and other events, including weddings and funerals, and, in his capacity as music director, to “prepare music for all parish masses and liturgies in consultation with the pastor where necessary,” as well as to recruit, train, direct, and rehearse the members of the chorus.
A dispute concerning the scheduling of Easter music culminated in Richard’s dismissal from both positions; he was 50 years old and was replaced by a much younger person. The diocesan employment handbook describes the diocese as “an equal opportunity employer” that does not discriminate on account of race, sex, age, or other factors.
Richard filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that the diocese violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act by dismissing him and replacing him with a younger person. A federal district court dismissed Richard’s lawsuit, and he appealed.
A federal appeals court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Richard’s claims. It began its opinion by observing, “Federal courts are secular agencies. They therefore do not exercise jurisdiction over the internal affairs of religious organizations.” It continued:
Since the United States was not to have a national church, the federal judicial power was not envisaged as extending to the resolution of ecclesiastical controversies. In contrasting our situation with that of England, the Supreme Court has remarked:
In this country the full and free right to entertain any religious belief, to practice any religious principle, and to teach any religious doctrine which does not violate the laws of morality and property, and which does not infringe personal rights, is conceded to all. The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect. The right to organize voluntary religious associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine, and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association, is unquestioned. All who unite themselves to such a body do so with an implied consent to this government, and are bound to submit to it. But it would be a vain consent and would lead to the total subversion of such religious bodies, if any one aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed. It is of the essence of these religious unions, and of their right to establish tribunals for the decision of questions arising among themselves, that those decisions should be binding in all cases of ecclesiastical cognizance, subject only to such appeals as the organism itself provides for. Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1872).
As a result, “a lawsuit to remove a priest on the ground that he is a heretic, or to reinstate a parishioner who has been excommunicated, thus has never been [resolvable] in the federal courts.” The court noted that the diocese claimed that if the lawsuit were allowed to go to trial it would argue that Richard was dismissed for a religious reason—his opinion concerning the suitability of particular music for Easter services. Such a position would “propel the court into a controversy, quintessentially religious, over what is suitable music for Easter services. Richard would argue that the church’s criticism of his musical choices was a pretext for firing him, that the real reason was his age. The church would rebut with evidence of what the liturgically proper music is for an Easter Mass and Richard might in turn dispute the church’s claim. The court would be asked to resolve a theological dispute.”
Richard insisted that his job was not “religious” since “all I did was play music.” The court disagreed, noting that “music is a vital means of expressing and celebrating those beliefs which a religious community holds most sacred.” Since Richard’s duties “had a significant religious dimension,” he “forfeited his rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.”
Finally, the court addressed Richard’s claim that the diocese represented itself to be an “equal opportunity” employer with respect to age and other factors, and by doing so voluntarily exposed itself to discrimination claims. The court disagreed, noting that “the ministerial exception … is not subject to waiver.”
Application. This case is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that the ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws may apply to church employees who are not ordained clergy but whose duties have a “significant religious dimension.” In this case, this definition included a church employee who served as music director and organist. Second, the court ruled that the ministerial exception is not “waived” by an “equal opportunity employer” notice in a church’s employee manual. Tomic v. Catholic Diocese of Peoria, 2006 WL 851640 (7th Cir. 2006).
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