Ministerial Exemption Bars Court’s Ruling in Music Director’s Dismissal

Federal Court unable to resolve claim that director’s dismissal was based on age or disability.

Church Law and Tax Report

Ministerial Exemption Bars Court’s Ruling in Music Director’s Dismissal

Federal Court unable to resolve claim that director’s dismissal was based on age or disability.

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 appeals court ruled that it was barred by the “ministerial exception” from resolving a church music director’s claim that he was dismissed in violation of federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on age or disability. A church’s music director (the “plaintiff”) oversaw the music department’s budget and expenditures, managed the sound systems and maintained the sound equipment, music room, and music area in the sanctuary, and rehearsed with members of the choir and accompanied them on the piano during services while running the soundboard. The plaintiff’s employment was terminated by the church, and he filed a lawsuit claiming that his termination was in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis of the ministerial exception, which generally bars the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and clergy. A federal district court agreed that the ministerial exception applied, and it dismissed the case.

A federal appeals court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims. It relied on a 2012 ruling by the United States Supreme Court unanimously affirming the ministerial exception. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012). In the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Supreme Court ruled that “there is a ministerial exception” that “bars the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.”

The Starkman Test

In Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court specifically declined to adopt a “rigid formula” for determining when an employee is a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception, concluding instead that “all the circumstances of employment” must be considered.

In 1999, a federal appeals courtadopted a three-part test for deciding if a church employee was a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception. Starkman v. Evans, 198 F.3d 173 (5th Cir. 1999):

First, this court must consider whether employment decisions regarding the position at issue are made largely on religious criteria … . Second, to constitute a minister for purposes of the “ministerial exception,” the court must consider whether the plaintiff was qualified and authorized to perform the ceremonies of the Church … . Third, and probably most important, is whether [the employee] engaged in activities traditionally considered ecclesiastical or religious, including whether the plaintiff attends to the religious needs of the faithful.

This three-part test became known as the “Starkman test” for determining ministerial status, and it was applied by several other courts. The court in the church music director’s case concluded that this test was no longer viable in light of the Hosanna-Tabor case:

Reviewing the arguments advanced by the parties … we conclude that the Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor at most invalidates and at least modifies Starkman‘s three-part test … . The Hosanna-Tabor Court engaged in a fact-intensive inquiry and explicitly rejected the adoption of a “rigid formula” or bright-line test. In light of this, Starkman‘s three-part test cannot survive in its precise form. First, given the totality-of-the-circumstances analysis in which the Hosanna-Tabor Court engaged, limiting the inquiry in ministerial exception cases to a three-part test is invalid … . Some of the facts the Hosanna-Tabor Court underscored may not be able to be considered under Starkman‘s three prongs, which would not be permissible. Second, because the Supreme Court eschewed a “rigid formula” in favor of an all-things-considered approach, courts may not emphasize any one factor at the expense of other factors. Thus, Starkman‘s “most important” factor—whether the plaintiff “engaged in activities traditionally considered ecclesiastical or religious”—may no longer serve as the gravamen of a ministerial exception case. However, this is not to place too great an emphasis on Hosanna-Tabor. Any attempt to calcify the particular considerations that motivated the Court in Hosanna-Tabor into a “rigid formula” would not be appropriate.

We are mindful of the benefit that clear standards provide to lower courts and religious employers seeking to structure their actions in accordance with the law. However, Hosanna-Tabor‘s rejection of a bright-line test likely reflects the diversity of religious practice in this country; given the pluralism of religious thought for which America is known and celebrated, it may not be possible to develop a one-size-fits-all approach to the ministerial exception … . Following the example of the Hosanna-Tabor Court, it is enough for us to conclude that, under the circumstances [the plaintiff] falls within the ministerial exception.

The Plaintiff’s Ministry

The crux of the plaintiff’s argument was that he merely played the piano during church services and that his only responsibilities were keeping the books, running the sound system, and doing custodial work, none of which was religious in nature. However, the court noted that “the performance of secular duties may not be overemphasized in the context of the ministerial exception.”

“The Hosanna-Tabor Court engaged in a fact-intensive inquiry and explicitly rejected the adoption of a ‘rigid formula’ or bright-line test. In light of this, Starkman’s three-part test cannot survive in its precise form.”

The church focused on the important role music plays in worship. It introduced evidence that all musicians, regardless of whether they are professional or volunteer or work full- or part-time, “exercise a genuine liturgical ministry.” An expert on canon law testified:

The church believes that music in the liturgy is sacred and has ritual and spiritual dimensions. Music enhances the prayer that occurs in the Catholic Mass by enriching its elements. It also draws the congregation closer to Christ, and allows the congregation to act together in celebration by singing praises and hymns to the Lord, which in turn strengthens the faith that is in them. Music is a part of the celebration and prayer that is occurring at the Mass and enhances the liturgy.

The court concluded that the plaintiff was a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception since playing the piano during worship “furthered the mission of the church and helped convey its message to the congregants.”

The plaintiff also insisted that he could not be considered a minister since he was not ordained and he did not conduct Mass, deliver a sermon, or write the music or lyrics for the ceremony, and lacked the education, training, and experience to be considered a minister. The court rejected this reasoning:

[The plaintiff’s] lack of formal training in Catholic doctrine is immaterial; this is because the ministerial exception does not apply only to those who are ordained. Moreover, the church introduced evidence, prepared by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and intended to aid in the preparation and celebration of the liturgy, that “as a matter of both religious belief and canon law, the Church considers music in the liturgy to be sacred, with ritual and spiritual dimensions; and a church musician to be a minister who shares faith, serves the community, and expresses the love of God and neighbor through music.” For Appellees, the argument is simple: Mass is the center of the Catholic faith, and the plaintiff was at the center of Mass.

The court noted that the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor observed that “the heads of congregations themselves often have a mix of duties, including secular ones, such as helping to manage the congregation’s finances, supervising purely secular personnel, and overseeing the upkeep of facilities.” Accordingly, “that the plaintiff lacked the religious training present in Hosanna-Tabor is insufficient to insulate him from the application of the ministerial exception, particularly in light of the important part his ostensibly secular duties—working on the music department budget, managing the sound system, running the soundboard during Mass, maintaining the music room, rehearsing with choir members and cantors, and playing piano during services—played in furthering the mission and message of the church at Mass.”

What This Means For Churches:

This case is important for two reasons. First, the court rejected the three-part Starkman test for determining ministerial status in applying the ministerial exception, noting that it could not survive the “facts and circumstances” approach articulated by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor. Second, the court emphasized the significance of music in the ministry of a church, and therefore those who are integrally involved in music ministry should be deemed “ministers” covered by the ministerial exception. Cannata v. Catholic Diocese, 700 F.3d 169 (5th Cir. 2012).

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