Employment Practices

A federal court in Wisconsin ruled that it was barred from resolving a former church music director’s claim that she had been wrongfully terminated by the church on account of her race.

Miller v. Bay View United Methodist Church, 141 F.Supp.2d 1174 (E.D. Wis. 2001)

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.

Key point 8-08. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion.

Key point 8-08.1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion. Religious organizations are exempt from the ban on religious discrimination, but not from the other prohibited forms of discrimination.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

A federal court in Wisconsin ruled that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a former church music director's claim that she had been wrongfully terminated by the church on account of her race in violation of federal law.

A Methodist church had a staff-parish relations committee, comprised of nine congregational members who volunteer for three-year terms, that made all employment decisions on behalf of the church by majority vote of the members. It and other committees that run the day-to-day operations of the church report to the "administrative council," which is the church's main governing body. The administrative council oversees all aspects of the church's operations.

The church's congregation consists of approximately 500 members. Although members organize and attend a variety of community activities at the church, the main gathering of the congregation are two weekly worship services on Sunday mornings. The structure and order of the worship services are determined by the pastor who is responsible for coordinating the elements of scripture, music, word, and prayer into a meaningful spiritual experience for the congregation.

The church has two choirs, the Chancel Choir and the Contemporary Christian Choir. The choirs were formed to participate in the Sunday worship services and participation in the choirs was completely voluntary. In 1997 the church hired a woman ("Leela") as its choir director and music director for its Sunday worship services. Leela was a member of another local church, and described herself as a "religious" and "spiritual" person. Prior to being hired, Leela went through an interview process with a special selection committee consisting of three members of the Chancel Choir. The selection committee was charged with the task of interviewing applicants and forwarding recommendations to the staff-parish relations committee, which made the ultimate decision to hire Leela.

During Leela's interview with the selection committee, she was told her basic job responsibilities were to choose appropriate musical selections for the Sunday worship services and to prepare and direct the choirs in leading the congregation in song. Additionally, the committee members explained to her that she was expected to research the religious themes of the upcoming services in religious books in the church's music library and to select music that coincided with the religious themes and meanings of that particular service. The selection committee informed her that she was expected to select the music for a particular service at least three weeks in advance to allow time for the choirs to practice the music for the worship service.

The selection committee also provided the plaintiff with copies of job descriptions for the positions of Chancel Choir Director and Director of Music at the time of her interview. The printed job description for Chancel Choir Director contains a section entitled "Responsibilities and Expectations." Such responsibilities and expectations include: "Conduct and lead weekly rehearsals," "Conduct and lead choir in anthems, weekly at the second service," "Prepare Choir to lead congregation in Hymns," "Select and prepare music well in advance of presentation," and "Where possible music to fit the liturgy and or the lectionary," and "Purchase music with the established budget."

The "Policy" section of the Chancel Choir Director job description states that Music in Worship rests upon the following "music ministry keys:" (1) variety is essential, (2) quality expected, (3) ministry, not performance, and (4) members are more important than gorgeous music. The "Policy" section of the director of music job description has the same "Music in Worship" elements, except in reference to the Contemporary Christian Choir. The "Responsibilities and Expectations" for Director of Music also states that the Music Director was to "encourage and promote music ministry outreach."

Following her interview with the selection committee, Leela interviewed with members of the two choirs she was to direct. The selection committee determined after the interview that Leela's qualifications seemed to fit the church's needs for a religious music leader for its Sunday worship services. In addition, the selection committee's recommendation to the staff-parish committee included the statement that Leela's "ethnic background" would be a "positive for the congregation."

Leela's final interview was with the pastor who reiterated the job responsibilities that the congregation expected her to perform, including preparing the music for the Sunday worship service, practicing with the choirs in the weeks before the worship services, and leading the choirs and congregation in song during the Sunday worship services. Shortly after meeting with the pastor, Leela was hired as the choir director/music director for the church.

During her tenure with the church, Leela selected the songs in the worship services by evaluating the particular message of a service and selecting music that "coincided" with and "enhanced" the meaning of that message. She directed each musical selection that was performed by the chorus at the weekly worship services, but directing the choirs did not require her to perform in the singing or playing of the music. She selected music for each performance based in part on a planner that was given to her by the church, which included music suggestions for each service. When she was later asked what she thought "the purpose of a choir is in a church setting?," she responded, "To lift voices and sing praises to the Lord."

Leela's employment as choir director and music director was terminated six months after she was hired. She later sued her church, claiming that its decision to terminate her employment was based on her race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits covered employers from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race.

A federal district court dismissed Leela's lawsuit on the ground that she was a "minister," and that any resolution of her claims by a civil court would violate the first amendment's guaranty of religious freedom. The court began its opinion by observing that "Title VII applies to religious organizations. Congress, given the opportunity to exempt religious employers entirely, created instead a tailored exemption which exempts from operation of the statute only those hiring decisions made by religious employers on the basis of religion." However,

Notwithstanding the exemption created by Congress, courts have carved out an additional exemption recognizing that some religious interests are "so strong that no compelling state interest justifies government intrusion into the ecclesiastical sphere." In particular, the Supreme Court is wary of state intrusion on a church's selection of its ministers and spiritual leaders, and the promulgation of religious doctrine. As a result, courts … have recognized an "ecclesiastical" or "ministerial" exception which precludes the application of Title VII to the employment relationship between certain individuals and religious institutions. The ministerial exception is aimed at preventing the introduction of government standards into a religious institution's selection of its own clergy.

The court stressed that the ministerial exception has not been limited to cases involving clergy. Lay employees of religious institutions have been deemed "ministers" for the purposes of the exception where their "primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship."

In deciding whether or not the clergy exception applies, the courts look to

the function of the employee and apply the exception if the position is "important to the spiritual and pastoral mission" of the religious institution. Where an individual's employment responsibilities are sufficiently ecclesiastical, a court may determine that it is precluded from scrutinizing a religious institution's allegedly discriminatory action in the employment context. In general, the more closely an employee's job responsibilities are tied to the ministering, governing, or the development of an orthodoxy, the less likely courts are to apply Title VII to employment decisions made by the religious institution regarding that employee.

The court applied the following three factors in evaluating the ministerial status of Leela's position: (1) was the employment decision based largely on religious criteria; (2) was the employee qualified and authorized to perform the ceremonies of the church; and (3) was the employee engaged in activities traditionally considered ecclesiastical or religious, including whether he or she attends to the religious needs of the faithful? The court concluded that all three factors were met in this case, and therefore Leela was a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws. In concluding that the first factor was met, the court noted that

job descriptions for the positions of director of music and chancel choir director … reveal that more was required of the positions than mere musical ability. The policy sections of both job descriptions state that music in worship rests upon [four] "music ministry keys." The director of music job description includes two responsibilities which are of particular significance with respect to religious criteria. The director must "ensure appropriate music for all regular services of the church" and "encourage and promote music ministry outreach." Additionally, one of the responsibilities of the chancel choir director job is, where possible, to choose music to fit the liturgy and or the lectionary. The policies, responsibilities and expectations of the jobs demonstrate that the defendant expected that a music ministry role be fulfilled by the director of music and the choir director.

With respect to the second factor, the court noted that Leela was qualified and authorized to perform the ceremonies of the church. She was responsible for "selecting, planning and directing every anthem and song performed by the choirs or sung by the congregation" and "this process required [her] to research the religious messages of Sunday services and to select music which coincided with those themes." With respect to the third factor, the court concluded that Leela was engaged in traditionally religious activities. She viewed her own role as having religious significance, for when asked what she thought "the purpose of a choir is in a church setting," she responded, "to lift their voices and sing praises to the Lord."

Furthermore, the court concluded, Leela attended to the religious needs of the faithful. It observed, "The choirs were specifically formed only to participate in the Sunday worship services and the two Sunday services are the time when the congregation members gather together for the purpose of renewing their beliefs and establishing their relationship with God."

Application. This case demonstrates the scope of the "ministerial exception" to federal and state civil rights laws. This exception prevents churches from being sued, under federal or state civil rights laws, for employment decisions involving "ministers." This case demonstrates that the exception is not limited to ordained clergy, but applies to any staff member whose primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, or participation in religious ritual and worship.

This case also suggests that job descriptions for ministry positions should be reviewed to ensure that they adequately describe spiritual qualifications and duties. Doing so will reduce a church's risk of expending substantial amounts of time and resources in defending against discrimination claims. This becomes even more relevant when one considers that most church insurance policies contain no coverage for such claims. As a result, most churches must retain and pay for their own attorney when sued for discrimination, and pay the entire amount of a judgment or settlement.

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