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 court in Tennessee ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a discrimination lawsuit brought by a hospital chaplain against her employer.
A woman (Megan) was employed by a church-affiliated hospital in its clinical pastoral education program. Megan's job description stated that she was required to initiate pastoral visits with patients and family members, be an on-call primary chaplain during non-work hours, and lead a Sunday worship service for patients, family, and staff. The hospital later dismissed Megan after a psychological assessment and other evidence suggested that she was not a suitable candidate for the clinical pastoral education program.
Megan sued the hospital, claiming that its decision to dismiss her amounted to discrimination based on disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Specifically, she asserted that the hospital violated the ADA by requiring her to submit to an unlawful medical examination performed by a staff psychologist, and by terminating her employment based on a perceived mental disability.
A federal district court noted that 'the ministerial exception is rooted in the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom and generally bars civil courts from reviewing decisions of religious organizations relating to the employment of their ministers.' The focus of the ministerial exception 'is on the action taken by the employer, rather than the motivation for that action.' As a result, the ministerial exception prevents 'any inquiry whatsoever into the reasons behind a church's ministerial employment decision.'
Megan conceded that she was a ministerial employee, but claimed that the hospital 'waived' the ministerial exception by obtaining accreditation from the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education. She noted that as part of the accreditation process, a hospital must represent that it does not discriminate on the basis of several grounds including disability.
The court concluded that the ministerial exception is rooted in the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom, and that waivers of constitutional rights are not effective unless 'clear and convincing evidence' of a 'knowing and voluntary' waiver exists. This high standard was not met in this case, since the hospital 'did not knowingly or voluntarily waive its constitutional right to be free from judicial interference with the selection of its ministers by seeking and obtaining ACPE accreditation.' The court noted that Megan failed to demonstrate that the hospital 'knew or intended to waive such rights by obtaining ACPE accreditation.' Although the hospital's failure to adhere to the ACPE nondiscrimination clauses 'might have some effect upon its accreditation by that agency, merely signing such an agreement does not, in and of itself, indicate a knowing, voluntary waiver of its constitutional right to be free from judicial interference with decisions relating to the employment of its ministers.'
Application. This case is important because it recognizes that religious employers will not lose the protection of the 'ministerial exception' because of a 'waiver' unless there is clear and convincing evidence that the employer 'knowingly and voluntarily' waived the exception. This high standard may not be met by 'boilerplate' nondiscrimination language that often is found in employment handbooks and policies, and similar documents. Hollins v. Methodist Healthcare, Inc., 379 F.Supp.2d 907 (W.D. Tenn. 2005).