• Key point: In some states, a civil lawsuit challenging a religious organization’s decision to dismiss an employee must be dismissed if the employee’s primary duties consisted of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship.
A Wisconsin court ruled that a lawsuit brought by a former church employee claiming that her dismissal constituted unlawful sex discrimination had to be dismissed since the employee’s position was “ministerial” and “ecclesiastical.” A female employee of a Catholic seminary, who served as “director of field education,” claimed that the seminary’s decision not to renew her contract of employment was based on her sex in violation of the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act. The Act prohibits discrimination in employment decisions on the basis of an employee’s “age, race, creed, color, handicap, marital status, sex, national origin, ancestry, arrest record, or conviction record.” A state court rejected the seminary’s claim that the civil courts lack jurisdiction to resolve employment discrimination suits brought against religious organizations. The court relied in part on a 1986 decision of the United States Supreme Court finding that the civil courts are not prohibited from “merely investigating” the circumstances of an employee’s dismissal by a religious school. Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Dayton Christian Schools, Inc., 477 U.S. 619 (1986). The court observed that giving religious organizations immunity from employment discrimination laws “would dangerously encroach upon the [nonestablishment of religion] clause’s prohibition against furthering religion by providing a benefit exclusively to a religious association.” However, the court ruled that the first amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion provides religious organizations with substantial protections that must be considered. These include the enforcement of state civil rights laws in cases involving employment decisions by religious organizations with respect to employees who perform a “ministerial” or “ecclesiastical” function. The court then addressed the question of whether the dismissed employee, who served as the seminary’s director of field education, fulfilled ministerial or ecclesiastical functions. The court acknowledged that “secular courts tread upon dangerous waters when answering this question because it may result in considerable ongoing government entanglement in religious affairs.” As a result, “a state agency or court confronting the issue must immediately resolve the question before further investigating or reviewing the [employee] complaint …. If the agency or court concludes that the position is ministerial or ecclesiastical, further enforcement of the [state civil rights law] against the religious association is constitutionally precluded, and the complaint should be dismissed.”
How, then, should a court or government agency decide if a particular employee serves ministerial or ecclesiastical functions? The court cautioned that a religious organization’s classification of an employment position as ministerial or ecclesiastical is not binding on the civil courts. The court proposed the following test to be applied in making this determination:
As a general rule, if the employee’s primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual or worship, he or she should be considered ministerial or ecclesiastical.
The court added that while this test “is not meant to provide the exclusive definition of ministerial or ecclesiastical functions, it should provide a basic framework for reviewing agencies or courts to follow when addressing the … question of whether a position is entitled to constitutional protection from state interference.” The court concluded that the seminary’s director of field education served ministerial and ecclesiastical functions since her position involved several of the duties mentioned in the court’s test including teaching, church governance, and supervision of a religious order. Having reached this conclusion, the court ruled that it had to dismiss the former employee’s complaint.
This ruling is important for two reasons. First, it is a strong endorsement of the constitutionally protected right of religious organizations to be free from governmental interference (through civil rights agencies or the courts) in employment decisions involving ministerial or ecclesiastical positions. Second, the court offered a test for identifying ministerial and ecclesiastical positions that will be helpful in future cases. Note that the employee involved in this case was deemed to be engaged in ministerial or ecclesiastical functions though she was not an ordained minister. Jocz v. Labor and Industry Review Commission, 538 N.W.2d 588 (Wis. App. 1995). [ Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]
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