Employment Practices

A California court ruled that the first amendment prevented it from resolving a lawsuit brought by an ordained chaplain who claimed that she had been discriminated against by her employer.

Schmoll v. Chapman University, 83 Cal.Rptr.2d 426 (Cal. App. 1999)

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.

A California court ruled that the first amendment prevented it from resolving a lawsuit brought by an ordained chaplain who claimed that she had been discriminated against by her employer, a church-affiliated university.

Chapman University (Chapman) is affiliated with the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. In 1991, Chapman hired a full-time chaplain and director of campus ministry. In 1994, the school informed the chaplain that budget constraints required a 50 percent reduction of her hours. The chaplain sued Chapman for damages, alleging the university's action was not financially motivated, but rather was discriminatory and retaliatory.

She claimed she was being punished for telling school administrators about some student complaints of sexual harassment by two faculty members. She further alleged Chapman had known about the problem "for many years," but had failed to take any disciplinary action. When she reported the complaints, she was told nothing could be done if the students themselves would not "personally confront the faculty members against whom they had complaints." The chaplain then "began to experience some negative reactions toward her employment, in retaliation for her advocacy for the students, culminating in the termination of her full-time employment status."

The chaplain's lawsuit alleged breach of implied employment contract to terminate only for good cause, sex discrimination in violation of a state civil rights law, and violation of public policy. She did not seek to have her full-time schedule reinstated. In its response, Chapman did not assert that it is wholly exempt from the state civil rights law under the exemption for certain religious entities. Rather, it contended the first amendment protections of religious freedom and the nonestablishment of religion bar civil court review of an employment dispute between a religious organization and its ministerial employee.

Chapman presented undisputed facts demonstrating its church affiliation. In particular, it submitted its most recent formal covenant with the Christian Church in 1993, in which Chapman pledged to (1) "reflect a Judeo-Christian tradition in its leadership and in its life"; (2) "provide … on-campus curricular opportunities for spiritual understanding, worship, and sharing, including Biblical studies"; (3) "use the services of the Church … as a resource for locating prospective students, administrators, faculty, trustees and staff"; (4) "provide on-campus voluntary worship services and other opportunities for the moral and ethical development of persons within its collegiate community"; (5) "cultivate a service relationship by offering the resources of its personnel, programs and facilities to congregations, regions, and general administrative units of the Church"; (6) "seek to understand and share in the life of the [C]hurch at the local, regional and general level"; (7) "include in its structure a means of preserving its Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) heritage and [to] pursue the vital relationships, goals and purposes common to Chapman and the Church"; and (8) "state in its catalog and all appropriate documents and literature its relationship with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)."

Chapman also established facts regarding the chaplain's employment as a member of the clergy. It showed that the chaplain had been hired as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to serve the total campus community as a pastor, and perform the duties of leading worship, directing a team of student ministers, and assisting in the recruitment of students "in the area of ministry as [a] vocation." The identified goals of the chaplaincy position included: "(a) raising the level of awareness of the spiritual dimension of life; (b) interpreting God at work in current affairs; (c) bringing awareness of the eternal to the temporal; (d) influencing the design of the new chapel through programs of ministry; (e) bringing together religious and secular leaders to develop an understanding of their ability to use their resources to build a better world; and (f) lifting up the Disciples [of Christ] church-relatedness of the college."

A trial court dismissed the chaplain's lawsuit, finding the university constitutionally protected against state interference with its employment decision affecting its chaplain. The chaplain appealed, and a state appeals court affirmed the trial court's ruling. The court began its opinion by observing: "The religion clauses of the first amendment provide that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. In light of that broad prohibition, the courts have developed a general rule barring judicial review of employment disputes between religious organizations and their clergy employees." The court noted that in religious matters such as employment decisions involving clergy, the first amendment "protects the act of a decision rather than a motivation behind it. In these sensitive areas, the state may no more require a minimum basis in doctrinal reasoning than it may supervise doctrinal content."

The court concluded that "judicial review of Chapman's employment decision would absolutely result in excessive entanglement with religion. We would have to inquire into the good faith of the university's reasons for cutting back [the chaplain's] hours and adjudge the legitimacy of the church-affiliated institution's own perception of its ministerial needs. Such a review is constitutionally forbidden." This was so despite the chaplain's argument that the decision to reduce her hours was an "economic" rather than a spiritual decision. The court noted simply that "the dispositive fact is the existence of an employment decision by a religious institution about a clergy employee. The courts do not cross that threshold."

The court concluded:

It matters not whether such an employment decision is based on doctrine or economics. It is irrelevant whether the action involves hiring, firing or discipline or simply changes the terms and conditions of the employment. The rule is about as absolute as a rule of law can be: The first amendment guarantees to a religious institution the right to decide matters affecting its ministers' employment, free from the scrutiny and second-guessing of the civil courts. This case is no exception ….

Under the religion clauses of the first amendment, Chapman was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. Even "apparently arbitrary decisions" of religious organizations affecting the status of their clergy employees must be free from judicial oversight. An investigation and review of such matters of church administration and government as a minister's salary, his [or her] place of assignment and his [or her] duty, which involve a person at the heart of any religious organization, could only produce by its coercive effect the very opposite of that separation of church and state contemplated by the first amendment. The employment decisions of religious organizations about their clergy employees are "per se" religious matters and cannot be reviewed by civil courts.

This case forcefully affirms the general rule that the first amendment prohibits the civil courts from resolving lawsuits brought by clergy who claim that they were wrongfully terminated or discriminated against by their church or church-affiliated employer.

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