• Key point. The civil courts ordinarily will not interfere with the decisions of religious organizations to dismiss clergy or other church employees who perform ministerial functions.
A federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit by a nun claiming that her employer, the Catholic University of America, discriminated against her on the basis of her gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A nun with a doctoral degree in canon law was employed as a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America. She applied for academic tenure after 6 years of teaching, and her application was denied on the basis of “marginal performance in teaching and scholarly publications.” She later filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that the university’s decision to deny her tenure on the basis of marginal performance was a mere “pretext” for what in fact amounted to sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC launched a 2—year investigation of the university in an attempt to substantiate the nun’s claim of discrimination. After attempts to conciliate the dispute failed, the EEOC joined the nun in suing the university. A federal district court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that it was barred by the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion. The nun appealed, and a federal appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling.
The appeals court observed that “[t]his case presents a collision between two interests of the highest order: the government’s interest in eradicating discrimination in employment and the constitutional right of a church to manage its own affairs free from governmental interference.” The court concluded that the nun’s claim was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. It noted that federal courts consistently have ruled that they have no authority to resolve discrimination disputes brought by clergy against religious employers:
The Supreme Court has shown a particular reluctance to interfere with a church’s selection of its own clergy …. Relying on these and other cases [a number of federal courts] have long held that the free exercise [of religion] clause exempts the selection of clergy from Title VII and similar statutes and, as a consequence, precludes civil courts from adjudicating employment discrimination suits by ministers against the church or religious institution employing them.
The court pointed out that the so—called “ministerial exemption” has not been limited to members of the clergy, but “has also been applied to lay employees of religious institutions whose `primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship.'” Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh—day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164, 1169 (4th Cir. 1985) . Employees whose positions are “important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church should be considered clergy.” The court concluded that “the ministerial exception encompasses all employees of a religious institution, whether ordained or not, whose primary functions serve its spiritual and pastoral mission,” and this included a nun who taught in the canon law department of the Catholic University. The court noted that the canon law department performs “the vital function of instructing those who will in turn interpret, implement, and teach the law governing the Roman Catholic Church and the administration of its sacraments.”
The court rejected the nun’s claim that the ministerial exemption was abolished by the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). In the Smith case, the Supreme Court ruled that “the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes … conduct that his religion prescribes.” On the basis of this language, the nun alleged that clergy are not immune from Title VII discrimination claims. The appeals court disagreed, noting that
it does not follow, however, that Smith stands for the proposition that a church may never be relieved from such an obligation …. The ministerial exception is not invoked to protect the freedom of an individual to observe a particular command or practice of his church. Rather, it is designed to protect the freedom of the church to select those who will carry out its religious mission ….
We conclude from our review of the Supreme Court’s first amendment jurisprudence that whereas the free exercise clause guarantees a church’s freedom to decide how it will govern itself, what it will teach, and to whom it will entrust its ministerial responsibilities, it does not guarantee the right of its members to practice what their church may preach if that practice is forbidden by a neutral law of general application.
The appeals court further ruled that the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause, which prohibits “excessive entanglement” between church and state, was violated by the 2—year investigation by the EEOC:
An excessive entanglement may occur where there is a sufficiently intrusive investigation by a government entity into a church’s employment of its clergy …. In this case, the EEOC’s 2—year investigation of [the nun’s] claim, together with the extensive pre—trial inquiries and the trial itself, constituted an impermissible entanglement with judgments that fell within the exclusive province of the Department of Canon Law as a pontifical institution …. This suit and the extended investigation that preceded it has caused a significant diversion of the Department’s time and resources. Moreover, we think it fair to say that the prospect of future investigations and litigation would inevitably affect to some degree the criteria by which future vacancies in the ecclesiastical faculties would be filled. Having once been deposed, interrogated, and haled into court, members of the Department of Canon Law and of the faculty review committees who are responsible for recommending candidates for tenure would do so “with an eye to avoiding litigation or bureaucratic entanglement rather than upon the basis of their own personal and doctrinal assessments of who would best serve the … needs” of the Department. Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh—day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164, 1169 (4th Cir. 1985) .
Finally, the court squarely upheld the constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It noted that it was only the second federal appeals court to directly review the constitutionality of the Act, and both upheld the Act’s constitutionality.
In summary, the court reached the following important conclusions: (1) Churches and other religious institutions have a constitutional right to make employment decisions involving ministers free from civil law claims. (2) This “ministerial exemption” extends to lay employees who primary duties include teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship, or whose positions are important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church; (3) The ministerial exemption is not affected by the Supreme Court’s Smith decision. (4) Government investigations into the employment decisions of churches regarding ministers violate the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause. (5) The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is constitutional. E.E.O.C. v. Catholic University of America, 83 F.3rd 455 (D.C. Cir. 1996). [ Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964]
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