Former Organist Sues Church

Court rules that church organist is not a ministerial employee.

Church Law & Tax Report

Former Organist Sues Church

Court rules that church organist is not a ministerial employee.

Key Point 2-04.1 Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and non establishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

Maryland’s highest state court ruled that it was not barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a former church organist’s lawsuit against his former church, since he was not a “ministerial” employee. An 11-year-old boy (the “plaintiff”) began working for a church as its organist in 1958, and served until 1976. From 1976 to 1991 he pursued other employment, and then returned to the church as its organist from 1991 to 2001. During all of these years he served the church without a written employment contract. In 2001, the plaintiff entered into a two-year employment contract with the church to serve as its “organist/pianist/keyboard accompanist.” The contract described the plaintiff’s duties as follows:

  • To support the Gospel message through the music ministry of the church and to encourage the congregation to assume as active part in their musical participation at all liturgical parish functions.
  • To provide organ/piano/keyboard music and musical accompaniment to both the congregation and the choirs of the church at the 10:30 a.m., 12:00 noon and 1:15 p.m. Sunday services; to provide the same at the weekly Saturday 5:15 p.m. service; to provide same at special liturgical celebrations … to provide musical accompaniment for the congregation at the 7:00 p.m. Monday night weekly novena service.
  • To build and sustain congregational song at all liturgies.
  • To assist in selecting music associated with the worship at all liturgies in which he/she participates.
  • To assist in planning the music associated with the above mentioned liturgies.
  • To participate in special liturgical celebrations when requested, especially Christmas, Lenten and Easter liturgies, Confirmation, First Communion, and Reconciliation liturgies.
  • To work under the very general supervision of the choir directors of the Liturgical Choir and the Hispanic Choir.
  • To attend parish staff meetings when appropriate.

For the performance of these duties, the plaintiff was to receive an annual salary of $26,500, in addition to other benefits, including hospitalization insurance. The contract provided that the parties could terminate the employment contract “by mutual agreement” with 90 days advance notice.

In 2001, the plaintiff informed the pastor that he had been sexually abused by a parish choirmaster from 1958 to 1964. Immediately after reporting the sexual abuse, the plaintiff claimed that his employment situation began to deteriorate, as the pastor began to find fault with his performance. Prior to reporting the abuse, his performance record had been exemplary; he had never received a negative performance evaluation or warning during the some 29 years of employment with the church.

A few months later, the plaintiff was informed that he should retire from his position, and was offered up to $2,000 to seek psychiatric counseling. His employment was later terminated unilaterally by the church, without advance notice, based on his “apparent inability to work cooperatively.” The plaintiff later sued the church, alleging breach of contract, wrongful discharge, and emotional distress against the church, its pastor, and the archdiocese. The archdiocese asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis of the “ministerial exception.” This judge-made doctrine, which is based on the First Amendment guaranty of religious liberty, bars the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and “ministers.” The archdiocese stressed that “music plays a vital role in a number of religious faiths,” including in the Catholic faith, and has deep religious significance. It cautioned that a judicial resolution of the plaintiff’s claims would endorse governmental interference with religion. A trial court agreed, and dismissed the lawsuit. The plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeals (the highest state court in Maryland) ruled that the ministerial exception did not apply to the plaintiff, and ordered the case to proceed to trial. It noted that for a church employee to be deemed a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception, his or her role must “consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision in religious ritual and worship.” The court concluded that “we simply are not convinced that plaintiff’s role was supervisory in any respect, involved any form of church governance, or directly required the teaching or the spreading of the religious faith.” It noted that the plaintiff “was not in absolute control of the music played, and he did not lead any choirs, teach any hymns, or control any part of the church services in which he participated. He was neither required to have specialized knowledge of the Catholic faith, nor expected to have any particular religious training. All he needed was knowledge of how to play an organ …. [T]he duties that [he] actually performed, while they occurred during church services, were not ministerial in any sense.”

The court stressed that the plaintiff did not lead the choir or congregation in song, but merely accompanied them. Nor did he “preach or inculcate values,” or “decide how the message was expressed. He was not … in a teaching role, in a position where his own beliefs affected his ability to perform his job …. He was not a music minister. He was not a pivotal figure at the church, did not plan any liturgies himself, and he was not in charge of the church’s musical life. He did not teach the choir any music, and he was not listed as parish staff.”

The court acknowledged that other courts had applied the ministerial exception to church music directors, but it concluded that each of these cases was distinguishable because of the nature of the tasks performed:

  • Assemany v. Archdiocese of Detroit, 434 N.W.2d 233 (1988). The ministerial exception applied to a church music director who was in charge of the Catholic liturgy in the church, and had a leadership role in the parish.
  • Egan v. Hamline United Methodist Church, 679 N.W.2d 350 (Minn. App. 2004). The ministerial exception applied to a church music director who was “responsible for managing and rehearsing the church choir, selecting and preparing music for regular Sunday services and other special services, playing the organ, and supervising other church music groups, such as the children’s choir and the handbell choir.”
  • Miller v. Bay View United Methodist Church, 141 F.Supp.2d 1174 (E.D. Wis. 2001). The ministerial exception applied to a church’s “music director and choir director” whose duties included “choosing appropriate musical selections for the Sunday worship services and preparing and directing the choirs in leading the congregation in song, researching the religious themes of the upcoming services in religious books and selecting music that coincided with the religious themes and meanings of that particular service as well as encouraging and promoting music ministry outreach.”
  • Starkman v. Evans, 198 F.3d 173 (5th Cir.1999). The ministerial exception applied to a church’s “choirmaster and director of music,” whose was required to have a masters in music and extensive study in church music, choral conducting, worship, choral vocal methods, hymnology, Bible, theology, Christian education, and church history and doctrine. The job description for this position stated that the person was responsible for planning worship liturgy, coordinating church and worship activities relating to the church’s music ministry, rehearsing with choirs and conducting those choirs, hiring musicians and lower level music ministry directors, and writing articles about the church’s music ministry for the weekly church bulletin, and introducing liturgical seasons for worship services. The music director acknowledged that for her and her congregation, music was a form of prayer and an integral part of worship services and Scripture readings.
  • Fassl v. Our Lady Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, 2005 WL 2455253 (E.D. Pa. 2005). The ministerial exception applied to a church’s director of music, whose job description included an ability to teach, to lead, and to encourage active participation of the congregation in liturgical celebrations and an ability to work with volunteers who participate in the church’s music ministry. The position required “a thorough understanding of and love for the liturgy of the church and the relationship of music to the liturgical life of the church.” The director of music directed three to five masses per weekend, planned music for liturgies, directed multiple church choirs, and prepared and played for penance services, all school liturgies, all other Holy Days, and contemporary and teen music groups.
  • Hope International University v. Superior Court, 14 Cal.Rptr.3d 643 (Cal. App. 2004). The court noted that “individuals whose function is essentially liturgical, that is, connected to the religious or worship service of the organization” are a “relatively easy case” of when the ministerial exception applies, and listed among the examples “music and choir directors.”

The court concluded that it was clear that the plaintiff failed to perform the kinds of duties mentioned in these cases, and therefore he was not a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception. As a result, the court rejected the request of the archdiocese to dismiss the lawsuit.

Application. This case will help church leaders know if the ministerial exception applies to their music minister or director. If the exception applies to a music minister or director, then the civil courts will not resolve that person’s employment-related claims.

Three judges dissented from the court’s opinion. They concluded that the plaintiff’s duties were sufficiently religious for the ministerial exception to apply. Archdiocese of Washington v. Moersen, 925 A.2d 659 (Md. 2007).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, March/April 2008.

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