• 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 Connecticut ruled that the a church-affiliated college could be sued by a homosexual ex-priest who was dismissed as a professor in the college’s religion department. In 1979 a man (Michael) was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and assigned to a diocese. In 1987, Michael informed his superiors that he was homosexual. As a result, the bishop placed Michael on a six-month leave of absence and advised him to seek counseling. Following this leave of absence, Michael met with the bishop to discuss the matter further. At that meeting the bishop placed him on a “permanent leave of absence from the active ministry.” Michael subsequently relocated to Connecticut and was employed by Albertus Magnus College. The College is a liberal arts college sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary of the Springs in Columbus, Ohio. The College is listed as a Catholic college in the Official Catholic Directory, which is the definitive compilation of Roman Catholic institutions in the United States. The Statement of Mission in the College’s Faculty Handbook provides, in relevant part: “Albertus Magnus remains faithful to the Judeo-Christian tradition and to its Catholic heritage, aware of and ready to respond to the evolving needs of its own students and of society at large.” In addition, the bylaws of the College’s board of trustees state, in part: “It is the responsibility of the Board of Trustees to maintain, in perpetuity, the essential character of the institution as a Catholic liberal arts college with a Dominican tradition and to insure that its educational program, and the service it renders, are in harmony with this commitment and tradition.” From 1991 through 1998 Michael was reappointed to one-year terms, and taught a variety of courses in various programs, including sexual ethics. In 1992 Michael introduced his male “life partner” to faculty and members of the College administration. No negative comments were made, no criticism of Michael’s sexual preference was voiced, and he experienced a general acceptance by the faculty and staff of his relationship with his life partner. However, beginning in 1997, college administrators began reading articles in Catholic newspapers identifying Michael as a homosexual ex-priest who was “married” to another man. These articles did not affect Michael’s employment with the College. However, the College president later dismissed Michael when she learned that Michael had identified himself as a “priest (on leave)” in a letter to the editor of a newspaper. Michael sued the college on the basis of breach of contract, emotional distress, defamation, and discrimination.
The Free Exercise of Religion
A federal district court began its opinion by noting that “employment of clergy members may be an essentially ecclesiastical matter shielded from court inquiry by the free exercise [of religion] clause” of the first amendment. The court continued,
For example, courts may be precluded from adjudicating employment discrimination suits by members of the clergy against the church or religious institution employing them. This prohibition, however, is not limited to cases involving members of the clergy, but appears to be based on the actual duties and responsibilities of the individual. As a general rule, if the employee’s primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual or worship, he or she should be considered clergy. Put differently, if their positions are important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church, employees should be considered clergy. This free exercise clause bar to litigation has been often referred to as the “ministerial exception,” although it also has been applied to lay persons performing religious duties and functions …. In sum, the cases teach that the free exercise clause does not shield all employment decisions by religiously-affiliated institutions. Courts are required to examine the duties and responsibilities of the particular employee and examine whether they are ministerial or secular in nature. It is only when the court concludes that the employee had primarily religious duties and responsibilities that the employment decision made by the religiously-affiliated institution is barred from review by the free exercise clause.
The court concluded that Michael’s claims were not necessarily barred by the ministerial exception since the record was not clear as to the precise nature of his duties. While he was employed by a college sponsored by a Dominican Order of nuns, and he taught in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy, “questions remain as to his actual teaching and non-teaching functions. The evidence submitted does not establish that he taught Roman Catholic theology, canon law, or similar courses. It is also unclear whether the students at the College were required to take particular religion courses involving Catholic teachings and whether Michael taught those courses. Further, at this time the evidence does not establish that Michael led students in prayer or provided them with spiritual counseling.”
The Nonestablishment of Religion
The court noted that the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause
has been interpreted to prohibit government entanglement with religion. For example, if the employment dispute between a church or religious entity and one of its employees would require resolution of issues of religious dogma, the court cannot hear the case. If, however, resolution of the employment dispute does not require the court to address questions concerning the validity or plausibility of religious beliefs or choose between competing views of religious doctrine, improper government entanglement does not occur because the decision that is ultimately reached implies nothing about the validity or plausibility of religious doctrine.
In sum, the cases hold that the establishment clause, like the free exercise clause, does not shield all employment decisions by religiously-affiliated institutions from review. Rather, this court is barred from adjudicating an employment dispute between a religiously-affiliated institution and one of its employees only where resolution of the dispute will require the court or a jury to choose between competing religious views or interpretations of church doctrine or dogma in order to resolve the dispute.
In claiming that the College breached the employment contract, Michael noted that the College had agreed not to discriminate against him on the basis of his sexual orientation. The College claimed that (1) when Michael was hired he represented that he was on a permanent leave of absence, which meant that he was no longer a priest, (2) Michael misrepresented himself as “a priest (now on leave)” in his letter to the editor of a newspaper, and (3) Michael’s employment relationship with the College was terminated because priestly status is a matter of central concern in the Roman Catholic faith and Michael misrepresented his status when he stated he was still a priest. Michael insisted that the College’s explanation for his termination was “pretextual” because he had consistently described himself as a priest on leave from active ministry, and the College only was concerned with his “priestly status” when it (and his homosexuality) became the focus of media attention. The court was willing to let the breach of contract claim go to a jury because assessing the importance the College placed on “priestly status” in reaching the decision to terminate Michael “does not involve a choice between competing versions of church doctrine.”
The court also concluded that nonestablishment of religion clause would not be violated if it resolved Michael’s claims that the College violated its stated procedures in dismissing him, or caused him emotional distress. The resolution of these claims “will not require the court to inquire into competing interpretations of church law or policy. Rather, the central issue for each of them is whether Michael was discharged for the reason the College has stated: his alleged misrepresentation of his priestly status.”
However, the court concluded that Michael’s defamation claim had to be dismissed, because a resolution of this claim would require the court to determine the truth of the College’s statements concerning Michael’s priestly status and, in doing so, would examine and weigh competing views of church doctrine. This would result in the Court entangling itself in a matter of ecclesiastical concern, thereby violating the establishment clause.
Application. This case represents the most narrow application of the ministerial exception in recent years. The court’s conclusion that the ministerial exception does not necessarily apply to a teacher of religion at a church-affiliated college is remarkable if not unbelievable. It is likely that this case will be reversed, if appealed. The court did clarify, however, that ministerial exception, when it does apply, is applicable not only to Title VII and other civil rights laws but also to common law causes of action such as breach of contract, defamation, and interference with contract. The reason for this broad application is that the ministerial exception is rooted in the first amendment to the federal constitution. Hartwig v. Albertus Magnus College, 93 F.Supp.2d 200 (D. Conn. 2000).
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