• Key point. Most courts recognize a “ministerial exception” to federal and state civil rights laws. This exception prevents the civil courts from applying federal or state civil rights laws to employment decisions made by churches and other religious organizations regarding clergy.
A federal court in Louisiana has issued an important ruling addressing the liability of a church for discriminating against a disabled person. A woman began her employment as choirmaster of a church in 1992, and thereafter became the director of music. While employed, she allegedly suffered from a variety of disabilities, including asthma, osteoarthritis of both knees, migraine headaches, and endometriosis. She claimed that the church refused to modify her work schedule to allow full recovery from knee surgery and, after she suffered chemical exposures from cleaning materials, refused to accommodate her chemical sensitivities. Her employment was terminated in May of 1995, and she sued the church and its pastor, claiming that she was discharged in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The pastor insisted that the ADA only applied to employers, and therefore he could not be sued personally for violating it. The pastor and church both claimed that the woman’s lawsuit was barred by the first amendment’s nonestablishment and free exercise of religion clauses.
The pastor’s liability under the ADA
The court agreed with the pastor that the ADA only applied to employers, and therefore the woman could not sue the pastor for violating the ADA since he was not her employer.
The first amendment defense – nonestablishment of religion
The church claimed that if a civil court were to apply the ADA to this case, it would constitute an “excessive entanglement” between church and state in violation of first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause. The court agreed that it had to “avoid disputes that cannot be resolved without entangling the government in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice,” and that contain issues “which cannot be analyzed in purely secular terms.” It concluded that the woman’s lawsuit might place the court in just such a position:
She looks to the Standards for Certification in Music Ministry in the United Methodist Church to bolster her position. She cites The Book of Discipline in detailing the “specials gifts, evidence of God’s grace, and promise of usefulness” that show a “calling” for the ministry. Most seriously, she cites “John Wesley’s principles of social justice” and the statement of the duties of Christians and Christian ministers in the “Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church” as evidence that the Church should obey the commands of the ADA. Similarly, [the church and pastor] have supported their arguments with reference to the “1994 Ministry of Excellence to Music,” as well as excerpts from the United Methodist Hymnal and the standards for certification as a Director of Music Ministry.
However, the court ruled that dismissal of the case at this time was premature, since the church had not yet established that its decision to dismiss the woman was based solely on religious grounds. It cautioned that the “bare potential” that an employment discrimination inquiry would impact religious beliefs “does not warrant precluding the application” of the law to religious employers.
The first amendment defense – free exercise of religion
The court agreed with the church that if the woman was a “minister,” then the first amendment’s “free exercise of religion” clause barred her ADA claim against the church. It cautioned that its role in applying the “ministerial exception” to civil rights laws was to focus on “the action taken, not possible motives,” and that it could not “inquire whether the reason for [the woman’s dismissal] had some explicit grounding in theological belief.” As a result, the church “need not advance a theological explanation regarding its allegedly illegal employment actions.”
The court considered three factors in deciding whether or not the woman was a minister:
1. Are employment decisions regarding the position at issue made “largely on religious criteria”? The woman claimed that her employment was “based strictly on my abilities as a choral director,” and that the position “only specified that Christian character was necessary,” with “no mention of being a spiritual leader.” However, the requirements for her job included coursework in Bible and Theology, and her position required “renewal of spiritual life.”
2. Authorization to perform the ceremonies of the church. The woman insisted that other staff members preached, led prayers, gave announcements, read scripture, welcomed new members, performed the sacraments, and led prayer groups and Bible studies. As a result, she did not perform the ceremonies of the church, and so could not be considered to be a minister. On the other hand, the church pointed out that the woman performed at least 21 “religious or worship—oriented job duties,” compared to only 3 “nonreligious, nonworship—oriented, or secular job duties.” In addition, the church noted that while the woman’s participation in religious ritual and worship was not a primary duty, and that hours on Sunday were not counted as weekly employment hours, her role was undeniably to lead the congregation in singing during the Sunday worship services. The church pointed to one of its own publications, which affirmed that “music is a gift from God” and that “making and listening to music can be, therefore, an act of prayer, an expression of faith, and a form of spiritual discipline.”
3. Activities traditionally considered ecclesiastical or religious. The court viewed this factor as the most important. The woman claimed that “virtually all of my primary weekly duties did not consist of teaching, spreading the faith, or participation in religious ritual and worship.” However, she listed 19 religious or worship oriented duties as “essential.” In addition, she referred to other “unstated spiritual and ministerial” requirements of her job. Further, the woman admitted that she was designated to be a “ministerial presence” to one ailing parishioner, and spent “numerous hours at the bedside” of another. This was in addition to frequent “visitation or telephoning of choir members.”
The court concluded that the woman’s position at the church was “within the parameters” of the ministerial exception from civil rights laws. It pointed out that “the Director of Music was responsible for duties squarely within the conventional understanding of ecclesiastical or religious functions, and was not a position mainly performing tasks which are not traditionally ecclesiastical or religious.” The court noted that “the ministerial exception has not been limited to members of the clergy,” but rather “encompasses all employees of a religious institution, whether ordained or not, whose primary functions serve its spiritual and pastoral mission.” The court concluded:
In determining whether [the woman’s] responsibilities are “essentially religious,” the court must inquire whether her “primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship.” Because the court finds that [woman’s] position as Director of Music was essentially religious and primarily served the [church’s] spiritual and pastoral mission, [the church] is entitled to invoke the ministerial exception to bar all [the woman’s] claims against it. Of course, this does not mean that every music director in every church falls within the ministerial exception. But in the case at hand, the [woman’s] duties played an integral role in the ministerial functions of [the church]. For this reason, she is covered by the exception.
Application. This case is important for a number of reasons: (1) It illustrates both the vigor and extent of the “ministerial exception” to federal and state civil rights laws. This exception prevents churches from being sued, under federal or state civil rights laws, for employment decisions involving “ministers.” This case demonstrates that the exception is not limited to ordained clergy, but applies to any staff member whose primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, or participation in religious ritual and worship. (2) The court provided a useful three—part test for determining those church staff members who are protected by the ministerial exception. (3) The court cautioned that the role of the civil courts in applying the “ministerial exception” was to focus on “the action taken, not possible motives,” and that the courts cannot “inquire whether the reason for [an adverse employment decision] had some explicit grounding in theological belief.” As a result, a church “need not advance a theological explanation regarding its allegedly illegal employment actions.” (4) This case suggests that job descriptions for ministry positions should be reviewed to ensure that they adequately describe spiritual qualifications and duties. Doing so will reduce a church’s risk of expending substantial amounts of time and resources in defending against discrimination claims. This becomes even more relevant when one considers that most church insurance policies contain no coverage for such claims. As a result, most churches must retain and pay for their own attorney when sued for discrimination, and pay the entire amount of a judgment or settlement. Starkman v. Evans, 1998 WL 548497 (E.D. La. 1998). Termination of Employees,Americans with Disabilities Act, The Free Exercise Clause
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