• 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 district court in Pennsylvania ruled that a former female chaplain at a Catholic University was barred by the so-called “ministerial exception” from suing the University for sex discrimination. A woman (Lynn) was hired as campus chaplain by a Catholic university. She claimed that the university discriminated against her on account of her gender in limiting her responsibilities as a result, she alleged, of her vocal opposition to the university’s attempts to cover up several incidents of sexual misconduct involving administrators and faculty. Believing that she was about to be fired, Lynn resigned her employment. She later sued the university on several grounds, including sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which bars sex discrimination in employment), retaliation, fraud, conspiracy, and breach of contract. The university asked the court to dismiss all of Lynn’s claims on the ground that they were barred by the “ministerial exception.”
The court began its opinion with a discussion of the ministerial exception. It noted that this rule, which has been recognized consistently by the courts over the past 30 years, is “rooted in the first amendment” religion clauses which allow religious institutions to “manage their internal affairs.” The court noted that the Supreme Court “has been particularly deferential in matters involving a church’s selection of its own clergy,” citing Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese, 280 U.S. 1 (1929) (“it is the function of the church authorities to determine what the essential qualifications of a chaplain are and whether the candidate possesses them”); and Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976) (“questions of church discipline and the composition of church hierarchy are at the core of ecclesiastical concern”).
On the basis of these considerations, several federal courts have ruled that the first amendment precludes the civil courts from resolving employment discrimination suits between churches and ministers. In one of the first such decisions, a federal appeals court observed,
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. Matters touching this relationship must necessarily be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern. Just as the initial function of selecting a minister is a matter of church administration and government, so are the functions which accompany such a selection. McClure v. The Salvation Army, 469 F.2d 553 (5th Cir. 1972).
The court stressed that 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,” and, “in fact, any matters touching this relationship are necessarily considered of prime ecclesiastical concern. Issues such as a minister’s salary, place of assignment, and the duty he is to perform in furtherance of the religious mission of the church are all matters touching the church-minister relationship.
Lynn insisted that the ministerial exception did not apply to her since she was not a “minister.” She pointed out that under Roman Catholic canonical law, only ordained priests can be ministers, and only males can be ordained priests. She claimed that it was “somewhat hypocritical” of the university to argue that she was a minister when the church hierarchy would claim that she was not.
The court noted that “the question whether an individual is a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception is a matter determined by federal common law, not ecclesiastical law, and federal courts have endorsed a functional approach to this inquiry.” It cited other federal court decisions that have applied the ministerial exception to persons based on function rather than formal ordination:
In determining whether an employee is considered a minister for the purposes of applying this exception, we do not look to ordination but instead to the function of the position. Alicea-Hernandez v. Catholic Bishop, 320 F.3d 698 (7th Cir. 2003).
The ministerial exception encompasses all employees of a religious institution, whether ordained or not, whose primary functions serve its spiritual and pastoral mission. EEOC v. Catholic University of America, 83 F.3d 455 (D.C. Cir. 1996).
[The ministerial exception applies to lay employees of religious institutions whose] primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship. Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164 (4th Cir. 1985).
[If their positions are] important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church they should be considered clergy. EEOC v. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 651 F.2d 277 (5th Cir. 1981).
The court concluded that Lynn was a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception, and so her lawsuit had to be dismissed. While she “downplayed the ministerial nature of her job responsibilities and cited her involvement in various secular job-related activities, it is evident from her own allegations that, as university chaplain, she was instrumental in implementing [the school’s] Catholic mission and actively involved in communicating that message to a broad lay constituency. Her own allegations and submissions suggest that her primary duties included spreading the Catholic faith and supervising or participating in religious ritual and worship.”
Lynn also attempted to get around the clergy privilege by claiming that the university’s motives in discriminating against her were not religious. The court again disagreed, noting that the ministerial exception “precludes any inquiry whatsoever into the reasons behind a church’s ministerial employment decision.” Religious organizations “need not proffer any religious justification for their decision, for the [first amendment] ‘protects the act of a decision rather than a motivation behind it …. The ministerial relationship lies so close to the heart of the church that it would offend the [first amendment] simply to require the church to articulate a religious justification for its personnel decision.”
The court rejected Lynn’s argument that the university had “waived” the ministerial exception by asserting in its policies and publications that it was an equal opportunity employer and did not discriminate against students on the basis of (among other things) gender. It concluded: “Assuming only for the sake of argument that the doctrine of waiver is applicable in the ministerial exception context, we find that there is no factual basis in the record to warrant its application here. Waivers of constitutional rights must be voluntary, knowing, and intelligent, must be established by clear and compelling evidence, and must be strictly construed …. [The university’s] pronouncements on various occasions that it would voluntarily conform to the principle of nondiscrimination does not amount to a clear and unambiguous waiver of its right to assert in this litigation a first amendment challenge to this court’s subject matter jurisdiction.
Application. This case is important for the following reasons:
1. It provides an excellent analysis of the background and purpose of the ministerial exception.
2. The case demonstrates the important point that the ministerial exception is not limited to ordained clergy, but encompasses any employee of a religious institution whose functions are “ministerial” in nature in the sense that they promote the religious mission of the organization. Since “the question whether an individual is a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception is a matter determined by federal common law, not ecclesiastical law,” the focus is on a person’s functions rather than on formal ordination.
3. The court clarified that 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.” Issues such as “a minister’s salary, place of assignment, and the duty he is to perform in furtherance of the religious mission of the church are all matters touching the church-minister relationship.”
4. The court emphasized that the ministerial exception cannot be avoided by claiming that a religious employer’s “motives” in dismissing or discriminating against a minister were not religious. It noted that the ministerial exception “precludes any inquiry whatsoever into the reasons behind a church’s ministerial employment decision.”
5. The fact that a religious organization adopts policies or statements to the effect that it is an “equal opportunity employer” does not amount to a waiver of the ministerial exception. Petruska v. Gannon University, 350 F.Supp.2d 666 (W.D. Pa. 2004).
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