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 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment guaranties of religious freedom and the nonestablishment of religion from resolving a sex discrimination lawsuit brought by a former minister to the deaf. An ordained Episcopal minister was hired by an Episcopal diocese as a minister to the deaf. Her responsibilities included developing a diocesan ministry for the deaf, educating the diocese about issues involving the deaf community, providing support to a deaf congregation, and acting as liaison between the deaf community and the diocese. During her eight years of employment, the minister claimed that she was subjected to discriminatory treatment in compensation and benefits based on her gender. These charges were vigorously denied by the diocese. The minister later resigned, and sued the diocese for sex discrimination under both state and federal law. A state appeals court dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of the so-called "ministers exception" to civil rights laws, and the case was appealed to the state supreme judicial court. The court observed,
The "ministerial exception" doctrine is based on the premise that a minister’s relationship to an organized church is intrinsically religious. Because civil resolution of disputes surrounding a minister’s employment unavoidably would involve investigation and review of the church’s practices and decisions with respect to, among other matters, the minister’s assignment, salary, and duties, allowing jurisdiction of employment discrimination claims would result in governmental intrusion into an area of religious freedom forbidden by the principles of the first amendment. In the words of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, "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. It is unavoidably true that these include the determination of a minister’s salary, his place of assignment, and the duty he is to perform in the furtherance of the religious mission of the church." McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir. 1972).
The minister insisted that the ministerial exception did not apply in this case because the challenged employment decisions did not implicate religious beliefs, procedures, or law. She argued that courts should afford an aggrieved minister the same protections provided to plaintiffs in secular employment settings to investigate claims of illegal discrimination in the workplace. The court disagreed:
It is not necessary that we respond to [these] specific contentions regarding the ministerial exception …. The facts alleged in the plaintiff’s complaint and supporting affidavit present a quintessential example of such a church dispute. The plaintiff’s resignation appears to have been motivated, essentially, by her frustration over the direction of her ministry and the perceived value placed on it by her superiors. A trial on this matter clearly would involve assessment of the church’s priorities of its ministries and require the defendants to defend the church’s policies regarding its ministers. Thus, jurisdiction is precluded in this case, regardless of whether we adopt the ministerial exception. It is true that the plaintiff’s claims do not, on their face, question the verity of religious doctrines or beliefs. It is hard to conceive, however, how a court could inquire into the reasons for the defendants’ decisions regarding the plaintiff’s ministry without intruding into matters of the internal management of the diocese. Irrespective of whether the defendants’ treatment of the plaintiff and her ministry was based on legitimate or illegitimate grounds, the plaintiff’s claims, by their very nature, implicate the defendants’ first amendment rights. To argue otherwise diminishes the importance of the constitutional separation of church and state …. That the diocese may have acted in violation of antidiscrimination policies set forth in its own personnel handbook is irrelevant. We decline to venture into the realm of interpreting internal guidelines and procedures that have been adopted by the Episcopal Church. As discussed above, a church must be free to decide for itself what its obligations to its ministers are, without being subject to court interference.
Application. As this court observed, the ministerial exception has been almost universally recognized by both federal and state courts, and it provides churches with virtual immunity from employment discrimination claims by current or former ministers. Williams v. Episcopal Diocese, 766 N.E.2d 820 (2002).
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