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.”