• 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
• Key point 8-11. State and federal civil rights laws generally prohibit employers from retaliating against an employee for filing a discrimination claim or otherwise exercising rights provided by the law.
A federal appeals court ruled that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevented it from resolving a claim by a minister that he had been “retaliated” against by his church for assisting a female employee in presenting a sexual harassment claim to church leaders. An ordained pastor (“Lee”) was approached by a female staff member at his church who informed him that her immediate supervisor had made sexual advances toward her. Lee assisted her in preparing an official complaint for presentation to the church elders. Shortly after assisting in the drafting of this complaint, Lee was reassigned to a church over 800 miles away at a substantial reduction in salary. For financial reasons Lee could not comply with this reassignment and so was forced to resign his position. He later sued his former church, claiming that it had retaliated against him for assisting the female staff member with her sexual harassment complaint. A federal district court dismissed the lawsuit, and Lee appealed.
The McClure Case
A federal appeals court began its opinion by referring to the 1972 McClure case. McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir.1972). In the McClure case another federal appeals court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination and retaliation against employees on the basis of several grounds including sex and sexual harassment, does not apply to the employment relationship between a church and its ministers. In McClure, a minister of the Salvation Army sued the church under Title VII, alleging she was discriminated against on the basis of sex and discharged because of her complaints regarding this alleged discrimination. After noting that there is a long history of allowing churches to be free from state interference in matters of church governance, the court held that it would not apply Title VII to the minister-church employment relationship. The court reasoned that applying Title VII to this relationship “would result in an encroachment by the state into an area of religious freedom which it is forbidden to enter by the principles of the free exercise [of religion] clause of the first amendment.” The court concluded that matters such as “the determination of a minister’s salary, his place of assignment, and the duty he is to perform in furtherance of the religious mission of the church” were all functions with which the state could not interfere.
Since McClure, many other federal courts have adopted this “ministerial exception” to Title VII.
The Smith Case
Lee conceded that the McClure case was the law prior to 1990, but he insisted that the ministerial exception to Title VII created in McClure could not exist following the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). The Smith case addressed the question of whether the state of Oregon could deny unemployment benefits to employees who had been terminated for using illegal drugs as part of a religious ceremony. Oregon law prohibits the intentional possession of a “controlled substance,” including the drug peyote. Two employees of a private drug rehabilitation organization were fired from their jobs because they consumed peyote for “sacramental purposes” at a ceremony of the Native American Church. The two individuals applied for unemployment benefits under Oregon law, but their application was denied on the grounds that benefits are not payable to employees who are discharged for “misconduct.” The two former employees claimed that the denial of benefits violated their constitutional right to freely exercise their religion. The Supreme Court ruled that (1) the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom did not prohibit a state from criminalizing the sacramental use of a narcotic drug, and (2) the state of Oregon could deny unemployment benefits to individuals who were fired from their jobs for consuming peyote. The Supreme Court stressed that “we have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate.” On the contrary, the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom “does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law [prohibits] conduct that his religion prescribes.”
Lee argued that Title VII was a “neutral law of general applicability” and therefore the first amendment does not bar the application of Title VII to a church even if its application would burden the free exercise of religion. The court disagreed. It noted that two other federal appeals courts had already ruled that the ministerial exception survives the Smith case. EEOC v. Catholic University of America, 83 F.3d 455 (D.C.Cir.1996) and Combs v. Central Texas Annual Conference of United Methodist Church, 173 F.3d 343 (5th Cir.1999). The court agreed with these two previous decisions and ruled that “the ministerial exception created in McClure has not been overruled by the Supreme Court’s decision in Smith.” It noted that the Smith decision
focused on the first type of government infringement on the right of free exercise of religion-infringement on an individual’s ability to observe the practices of his or her religion. The second type of government infringement-interference with a church’s ability to select and manage its own clergy-was not at issue in Smith. The Court’s concern in Smith was that if an individual’s legal obligations were contingent upon religious beliefs, those beliefs would allow each individual “to become a law unto himself.” The ministerial exception does not subvert this concern; it was not developed to provide protection to individuals who wish to observe a religious practice that contravenes a generally applicable law. Rather, the exception only continues a long-standing tradition that churches are to be free from government interference in matters of church governance and administration. Also, because the ministerial exception is based on this tradition and not on strict scrutiny, the Court’s rejection in Smith of the compelling interest test does not affect the continuing vitality of the ministerial exception.
The court concluded by quoting from the McClure case, “The relationship between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood. The minister is the chief instrument by which the church seeks to fulfill its purpose.” Therefore, “an attempt by the government to regulate the relationship between a church and its clergy would infringe upon the church’s right to be the sole governing body of its ecclesiastical rules and religious doctrine.”
The court also ruled that applying Title VII to the employment relationship between a church and its clergy would involve “excessive government entanglement with religion” as prohibited by the nonestablishment of religion clause of the first amendment since “investigation by a government entity into a church’s employment of its clergy would almost always entail excessive government entanglement into the internal management of the church. A church’s view on whether an individual is suited for a particular clergy position cannot be replaced by the courts’ without entangling the government in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice. The establishment clause thus also mandates that churches retain exclusive control over strictly ecclesiastical matters.”
Application. This case illustrates the continuing viability of the “ministerial exception” following the Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling in the Smith case. As a result, it is virtually certain that the civil courts will dismiss complaints by ministers alleging a violation of the nondiscrimination rules of Title VII and similar laws by an employing church for which they performed ministerial duties. Gellington v. Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Inc., 203 F.3d 1299 (11th Cir. 2000).
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