‘Ministerial Exception’ Bars Court from Resolving Youth Minister’s Sex Discrimination Claim

Church Law and Tax Report ‘Ministerial Exception’ Bars Court from Resolving Youth Minister’s Sex Discrimination

Church Law and Tax Report

‘Ministerial Exception’ Bars Court from Resolving Youth Minister’s Sex Discrimination Claim

Key point 8-12.5. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It consists of both “quid pro quo” harassment and “hostile environment” harassment. Religious organizations that are subject to Title VII are covered by this prohibition. An employer is automatically liable for supervisory employees’ acts of harassment, but a defense is available to claims of hostile environment harassment if they have adopted a written harassment policy and an alleged victim fails to pursue remedies available under the policy. In some cases, an employer may be liable for acts of sexual harassment committed by nonsupervisory employees, and even nonemployees.

Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

Key point 8-10.1. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.

A federal district court in Nebraska ruled that it was barred by the “ministerial exception” from resolving a youth minister’s claim that his employing church committed unlawful sex discrimination and retaliation by dismissing him. A church’s youth minister (the “plaintiff”) claimed his employment was terminated due to his gender and marital status, and in retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment committed by a pastor who was the plaintiff’s direct supervisor. With regard to his marital status, the plaintiff alleged he filed for divorce during his employment and became the single parent of four children shortly before his termination. Prior to his divorce, the plaintiff alleged he was subjected to “episodes of uninvited touches, body hugs, back rubs and neck massages, private office visits, and unsolicited invitations for drinks, dinner and companionship,” on a daily basis. Based on these allegations, the plaintiff sued his former church asserting claims for gender discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The church denied the plaintiff’s allegations, claiming that he resigned his employment for personal reasons. It also argued that the plaintiff’s lawsuit was barred by the “ministerial exception” which generally prevents the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and ministers.

The court began its opinion by noting that “since the passage of Title VII … and other employment discrimination laws, the [federal courts] have uniformly recognized the existence of a ‘ministerial exception,’ grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes application of such legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.” In 2012, a unanimous Supreme Court observed:

Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012).

The Supreme Court reasoned that forcing retention of an unwanted minister “concerns government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.”

In order for the ministerial exception to apply, “the employer must be a religious institution and the employee must have been a ministerial employee.” Conlon v. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 777 F.3d 829, 834 (6th Cir.2015). The plaintiff conceded that his former church was a religious institution, so the question was whether his employment was ministerial.

Was the plaintiff a “minister”?

In the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Supreme Court provided no “rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister,” but noted that the exception “is not limited to the head of a religious congregation.” It relied on facts such as whether (1) the church held the employee out distinct from other members, (2) the position held a title reflecting specialized training, (3) the employee held himself out as a minister according to the terms of the church, and (4) the job duties reflect a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission.

In concluding that the plaintiff was a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception, the court noted the following facts:

  • he was an ordained minister through a nondenominational agency;
  • he listed his occupation as a minister on his tax forms;
  • he received a bachelor’s degree in Bible and Theology from Moody Bible Institute and studied for a Master’s of Divinity prior to his employment with the defendant church in 2010;
  • he was the church’s “Director of Youth Ministry”;
  • A director in the church was treated differently than a “called” or ordained staff member in some regards.
  • The plaintiff had a role recognized by both himself and the church which was distinct from that of most of the church’s members.

The plaintiff insisted that he was merely a “secular” employee because he was neither ordained clergy in the church’s denomination nor was he engaged in primarily religious activities. He also pointed out that his actual work differed from the duties listed in his job description. For example, his job description stated the Director of Youth Ministry was “responsible for leading and delivering the Wednesday evening student worship service.” However the plaintiff testified, “[W]e never really had a worship service on Wednesday nights.” The plaintiff denied engaging in many of the tasks listed on the formal job description for the Director of Youth Ministry, stating his employment included many informal tasks.

On the other hand, the plaintiff admitted that his employment duties included chaperoning mission trips, teaching eighth grade confirmation class, and teaching Bible school classes. Additionally, he agreed that his actual duties included (a) daily interaction with the youth of the church; (b) ensuring the spiritual needs of the youth of the church were met in a professional and ethical manner; (c) planning, developing, and implementing programs to expand and improve the youth ministry; (d) performing ongoing evaluations of the existing youth program and making changes when necessary; (e) budgeting for the youth program; (f) teaching youth programs in the ways of the church; and (g) recruiting, training, and motivating volunteers from middle school and high school and providing ongoing support for team leaders for the church’s Wednesday evening youth program.

The church’s lead pastor described the plaintiff’s role as “imparting the church’s mission onto the youth by teaching the youth (children in grades 6-12) the Christian Reformed basic tenets of the church—worship, fellowship, discipleship, mission, and evangelism.” The lead pastor described the plaintiff’s job as teaching the Bible, discipleship, the church’s understanding of the Sacraments in the Reformed tradition, and the importance of Holy Scripture in the lives of the youth. Specifically, he described the mission of the church as to know Christ and to make him known, including the “basic instructional discipleship living, how to be a follower of Jesus Christ.” The plaintiff was the leader of the student confirmation process, including planning and leading the worship service culminating in the students’ commissioning into adult membership, and overseeing the development of the entire youth program, including teaching or training staff.

The court concluded that the plaintiff was a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception:

The plaintiff’s job duties reflected a role in him conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission. The church trusted the plaintiff to lead the youth through the tenets of the religion with, at least, weekly confirmation and Bible school classes, with additional instruction in worship, discipleship, fellowship, mission work, and evangelism activities. While the plaintiff may have conducted secular duties, the precise division of secular and religious labor is immaterial particularly when the mission work led by the plaintiff incorporated and embodied the core teachings of the church.

What employment decisions are covered by the ministerial exception?

The court then addressed the question of whether the claims asserted by the plaintiff were covered by the ministerial exception. It concluded:

In this case, the church’s treatment of the plaintiff in relation to his sexual harassment allegation clearly implicates an internal church decision and management, rather than the outward physical acts of one pastor. Accordingly … this court finds the plaintiff’s sexual harassment claim is factually entwined and related to the plaintiff’s other claims, which the court may not review without excessive government entanglement with religion in violation of the First Amendment.

What This Means For Churches:

This case is instructive because of the court’s use of the four-factor analysis enunciated by the Supreme Court in determining if an employee is a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception. The court concluded that ordination is not a prerequisite to ministerial status. Rather, a finding of ministerial status involves an examination of the following factors: (1) Did the church hold the employee out distinct from other members? (2) Did the employee have a title reflecting specialized training? (3) Did the employee hold himself out as a minister? (4) Did the employee’s job duties reflect a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission? In evaluating these factors, the court relied in part on the plaintiff’s job description. The importance of a person’s job description cannot be overstated in evaluating his or her ministerial status, and for this reason it is imperative that job descriptions be carefully crafted. Many churches have employees whose ministerial status is ambiguous, and often this ambiguity can be reduced through careful drafting of a job description.

It is also noteworthy that the court applied the ministerial exception to the plaintiff’s sexual harassment claim because it was “entwined and related” to his claim of wrongful termination. Covenant Presbyterian Church, 2015 WL 1826231 (D. Neb. 2015).

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