Employment Practices – Part 3

A federal court in North Carolina ruled that it was barred from resolving a sex discrimination lawsuit brought by a dismissed church music director.

Church Law and Tax2000-07-01

Employment Practices

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

Key point 8-06. The civil courts haveconsistently ruled that the first amendment prevents the civil courts from applying civil rights lawsto the relationship between a church and a minister.

Key point 8-08. Title VII of the CivilRights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees fromdiscriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, nationalorigin, gender, or religion.

Key point 8-08.1. Title VII of the CivilRights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees fromdiscriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, nationalorigin, gender, or religion. Religious organizations are exempt from theban on religious discrimination, but not from the other prohibited formsof discrimination.

A federal court in North Carolina ruled that it was barred bythe first amendment guaranties of religious freedom and the nonestablishmentof religion from resolving a sex discrimination lawsuit brought by a dismissedchurch music director. A church conducted a survey on all aspects ofchurch life. The survey indicated a dissatisfaction among members with the musicministry. As a result of these concerns, the church dismissed its musicdirector and hired a replacement. The dismissed music director sued herchurch, claiming that her dismissal amounted to sex discrimination inviolation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In particular, shealleged that she had been replaced by a male. The court dismissed thedirector’s lawsuit on the ground that it was barred by the so-called”ministerial exception” from resolving it. Under this exception, the civilcourts refrain from resolving disputes involving the employment status of churchemployees whose “primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith,church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision orparticipation in religious ritual and worship.” The court rejected the director’sclaim that the ministerial exception did not apply to her because herposition was not ministerial in nature. It noted that she was a member ofthe church’s worship committee and was responsible for planning music tocompliment the liturgy throughout the church season. The court concluded that

the function of planning and playing a part inthe performance of the liturgy, the public worship of the church, is faciallyministerial. [Her] duty as a member of the worship committee also [involved]teaching, spreading the faith … and supervision or participation inreligious ritual and worship …. [Her] church considers the music leadera minister, someone who shares faith, serves the community, and expresses thelove of God and neighbor through music …. Given the undisputedsignificance of the role of music in the church, and [the music director’s]teaching and supervision of religious ritual and worship, her duties …fall within the ministerial exception.

The court also concluded that a “subjection of church employmentdecisions regarding persons in ministerial positions to Title VII scrutinycreates excessive government entanglement” in violation of the firstamendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause.

Application. This case is important because it based the”ministerial exception” to civil rights laws not only on the first amendment’s guaranty ofthe free exercise of religion, but also on the first amendment’s”nonestablishment of religion” clause. A government practice that promotes orinhibits religion violates this clause if it results in an excessive entanglementbetween church and state. Such entanglement will arise, the courtconcluded, if the civil courts were to resolve employment discrimination lawsuitsbrought by ministerial employees against their church. Equal EmploymentOpportunity Commission v. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, 48 F.Supp.2d505 (E.D.N.C. 1999).

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