Former Hospital Chaplain Sues for Age and Sex Discrimination

Courts are prohibited from interfering in ecclesiastical considerations.

Church Law and Tax 1991-03-01 Recent Developments

Clergy – Removal

A federal district court in Missouri ruled that a hospital chaplain could not sue the hospital for alleged age and sex discrimination following her dismissal. The former chaplain was an ordained Episcopal priest who had served as chaplain of a church affiliated hospital for 10 years. Following her dismissal, the former chaplain sued the hospital on the grounds that her dismissal (1) violated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits certain employers from dismissing employees on the basis of their sex, and (2) violated the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which bans discrimination in employment against persons 40 years of age and older—on account of age. The court granted the hospital’s request for a “summary judgment,” meaning that it dismissed the former chaplain’s lawsuit without allowing it to go to trial. In reaching its decision, the court relied on a 1979 ruling of the United States Supreme Court. In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled that in deciding whether of not a federal law applies to religious organizations, a civil court first must ask if applying the law to religious organizations “would give rise to serious constitutional questions.” If it would, then the law cannot be applied without an “affirmative expression of congressional intent” to apply the law to such organizations. The court concluded that application of both the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act to the relationship between a chaplain and a church-affiliated hospital would create “serious constitutional questions.” Accordingly, neither Act could be applied to the hospital without an “affirmative expression of congressional intent” to apply the law to such a relationship. The court found no congressional intent to apply the age discrimination law to the chaplain-hospital relationship, and so it concluded that the former chaplain’s claim of age discrimination had to be dismissed. But, the court did find an “affirmative expression of congressional intent” to apply the Civil Rights Act to the chaplain-hospital relationship. However, it concluded that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom prohibited the Act from being applied in this context, and dismissed this claim as well. In reaching its decisions, the court emphasized that the hospital was “a church-affiliated institution with substantial religious character,” and that the former chaplain’s position was “inherently religious.” The court observed that the former chaplain had acted as a minister “by visiting hospital patients, reading the Bible to them, praying with them, performing baptisms, presiding at funerals, administering communion, performing chapel services, etc.” These activities, concluded the court, “are inherently religious and so confer on [the] chaplain position its inherently religious nature.” The court also rejected the former chaplain’s claim that since her lawsuit alleged only age and sex discrimination, any consideration of the ecclesiastical nature of her duties was inappropriate. It noted that the hospital had asserted that the dismissal was based in part on the former chaplain’s failure to follow “liturgical requirements,” and accordingly any review of her dismissal would inevitably involve the court in ecclesiastical considerations. The court quoted with approval from a 1928 decision of the Supreme Court: “Because the appointment is a canonical act, it is the function of the church authorities to determine what the essential qualifications of a chaplain are and whether the candidate possesses them. In the absence of fraud [or collusion] the decisions of the proper church tribunals on matters purely ecclesiastical, although affecting civil rights, are accepted in litigation before the secular courts as conclusive.” Scharon v. St. Luke’s Episcopal Presbyterian Hospitals, 736 F. Supp. 1018 (E.D. Mo. 1990).

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