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
Key point 13-02.2. Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to prevent the government from enacting any law or adopting any practice that substantially burdens the free exercise of religion unless the law or practice is supported by a compelling government interest. The compelling government interest requirement applies to any law, including neutral laws of general applicability. The objective of the Act was to repudiate the Supreme Court's decision in the Smith case (1990) in which the Court ruled that neutral laws of general applicability that burden the free exercise of religion do not need to be supported by a compelling government interest in order to satisfy the First Amendment. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the Act was unconstitutional. However, other courts have limited this ruling to state and local legislation, and have concluded that the Act continues to apply to federal laws.
The Free Exercise Clause
A federal appeals court ruled that a minister's age discrimination lawsuit challenging a denominational policy requiring the retirement of ministers at 70 years of age was barred by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A minister was forced into retirement at age 70 by a policy of his denomination. The minister sued his church and a denominational official for violating a federal age discrimination law making it unlawful for any employer with 20 or more employees that is engaged in commerce to discriminate in any employment decision on the basis of the age of any person who is at least 40 years of age. The minister asserted that the mandatory retirement policy was a 'secular' matter that was not influenced by any religious considerations. He acknowledged that most courts refuse to intervene in employment disputes between churches and clergy as a result of the so-called 'ministerial exception' to employment laws, but he insisted that the ministerial exception 'should not insulate a church's non-religious regulations that discriminate against ministers on the basis of age.' A federal district court dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of the ministerial exception.
A federal appeals court ignored the ministerial exception and ruled that the lawsuit was barred by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). It noted that the ministerial exception 'has no basis in statutory text, whereas RFRA, if applicable, is explicit legislation that could not be more on point. Given the absence of other relevant statutory language, the RFRA must be deemed the full expression of Congress's intent with regard to the religion-related issues before us and displace earlier judge-made doctrines that might have been used to ameliorate the age discrimination law's impact on religious organizations and activities.'
RFRA provides: 'Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability … [unless] it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.' The court reasoned that RFRA was broad enough to apply to a minister's lawsuit against a church 'since it applies to all federal law and the implementation of that law.' This language 'easily covers the present action.'
The court rejected the minister's claim that RFRA is unconstitutional. It concluded that RFRA represents a constitutional exercise of congressional power as it applies to the federal government.
One dissenting judge argued that RFRA has no application to disputes between private parties, such as the present case, and that the case should have been dismissed on the basis of the ministerial exception.
Application. This case suggests that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can be used by churches to defend against discrimination claims under federal employment laws. This is the first court to reach such a conclusion. Other courts, and the dissenting judge in this case, apply the 'ministerial exception' to such disputes. Hankins v. Lyght, 441 F.3d 96 (2nd Cir. 2006).