Former Minister Sues for Race and Sex Discrimination

Civil courts cannot interfere with the dismissal of clergy.

Church Law and Tax 1994-07-01 Recent Developments

Clergy – Removal

Key point: The civil courts are compelled by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom to refrain from interfering with the internal decisions of hierarchical churches, including decisions regarding the discipline or dismissal of clergy.

A federal appeals court ruled that a black female could not sue her denomination on the basis of alleged race and sex discrimination for its decision to revoke her ministerial status. After several years serving as a probationary minister of the United Methodist Church, a black female applied for a promotion to the position of “clergy member in full connection” or “elder.” A review panel of a Methodist Conference denied her request for a promotion and terminated her employment. She notified the EEOC of her termination. It found no probable cause that the United Methodist Church had engaged in either race or sex discrimination. The woman later filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the United Methodist Church denied her promotion and fired her because of her race and sex and because of her opposition to the Church’s discriminatory practices. She claimed that the Church’s actions violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits employers (with 15 or more employees, and that are engaged in interstate commerce) from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or religion. The woman asked the court to grant her several forms of relief including reinstating her as a probationary minister, back pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, fees, and costs. The Church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis of a lack of jurisdiction. It claimed that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom forbids the civil courts from interfering with “the internal ecclesiastical workings and discipline of religious bodies.” The trial court found that it could not decide the case without reaching the constitutional issue, and that the first amendment deprived it of jurisdiction over the case. It dismissed the lawsuit against the church, and the woman appealed.

The appeals court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit. It relied primarily on another federal appeals court ruling in the case of Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164 (4th Cir. 1985). In the Rayburn case the plaintiff alleged sex discrimination in violation of Title VII when her application to serve as an “associate in pastoral care” was rejected by a denominational agency. In rejecting this lawsuit, the Rayburn court observed:

[C]ourts must distinguish incidental burdens on free exercise in the service of a compelling state interest from burdens where the “inroad on religious liberty” is too substantial to be permissible. … This case is of the latter sort: introduction of government standards to the selection of spiritual leaders would significantly, and perniciously, rearrange the relationship between church and state. While an unfettered church may create minimal infidelity to the objective of Title VII, it provides maximum protection of the first amendment right to the free exercise of religious beliefs. In other words, in a direct clash of “highest order” interests, the interest in protecting the free exercise of religion embodied in the first amendment to the Constitution prevails over the interest in ending discrimination embodied in Title VII.

Having determined that the position was “important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church,” the Rayburn court held that “the free exercise clause of the first amendment protects the act of a decision rather than a motivation behind it. In these sensitive areas, the state may no more require a minimum basis in doctrinal reasoning than it may supervise doctrinal content.”

The dismissed Methodist minister insisted that her lawsuit “only involves secular issues and will not require any entanglements over religious issues.” The appeals court disagreed, citing the United States Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 717, 96 S.Ct. 2372, 2384, 49 L.Ed.2d 151 (1976). In Milivojevich the Supreme Court refused to overturn the dismissal of a minister on the ground that his church had acted “arbitrarily” by not following its own bylaws. The Supreme Court observed:

No “arbitrariness” exception—in the sense of an inquiry whether the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal of a hierarchical church complied with church laws and regulations—is consistent with the constitutional mandate that civil courts are bound to accept the decisions of the highest judicatories of a religious organization of hierarchical polity on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.

The Supreme Court went on to hold that allowing review of “arbitrary” decisions, which in this sense means decisions which do not comply with a church’s own rules or practices, is:

[E]xactly the kind of inquiry that the first amendment prohibits. Recognition of such an exception would undermine the general rule that religious controversies are not the proper subject of civil court inquiry, and that a civil court must accept the ecclesiastical decisions of church tribunals as it finds them.

The appeals court summed up this precedent by noting that “[i]n other words, religious bodies may make apparently arbitrary decisions affecting the employment status of their clergy members and be free from civil review having done so.” The court added:

Milivojevich, read in its entirety, holds that civil court review of ecclesiastical decisions of church tribunals, particularly those pertaining to the hiring or firing of clergy, are in themselves an “extensive inquiry” into religious law and practice, and hence forbidden by the first amendment. [The dismissed minister’s] argument, that Title VII may be applied to decisions by churches affecting the employment of their clergy, is fruitless.

The court concluded:

Although this is the first time this precise issue has been presented to us, its resolution is straightforward. As we have indicated, Milivojevich holds that the free exercise [of religion] clause of the first amendment forbids a review of a church’s procedures when it makes employment decisions affecting its clergy. In fact, in Milivojevich it was the precise issue of a change in internal procedure, as in this case, which the Supreme Court refused to review. The Supreme Court found this to be “exactly the kind of inquiry that the first amendment prohibits.” The inquiry [the dismissed minister in this case] seeks is no different, and it too is prohibited …. To accept [her] position would require us to cast a blind eye to the overwhelming weight of precedent going back over a century in order to limit the scope of the protection granted to religious bodies by the free exercise clause. There is nothing advocated by [the dismissed minister] which raises any doubt about the correctness of the district court’s decision. Young v. Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, 21 F.3d 184 (7th Cir. 1994).

See Also: Termination

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