Teacher Sues School for Age and Sex Discrimination

In many cases, non-ministerial employees may sue churches.

Church Law and Tax 1997-05-01

Employment Practices

Key point. The first amendment prohibits the civil courts from applying federal or state discrimination laws to the clergy-church relationship. However, most courts have ruled that this prohibition does not extend to church employees who are not ministers or who perform no ministerial functions.

A New Jersey court ruled that a lay teacher could sue a Catholic high school for age and sex discrimination. The teacher had been employed from 1983 to June of 1991 to teach English and history. In 1991 she was informed that her position was being eliminated due to “budget problems”. The teacher sued the school, claiming that the real reason she was being terminated was because of her gender and age (in violation of federal nondiscrimination law). As proof, she alleged that the school later replaced her with a younger, male teacher. The school defended itself by insisting that all teaching positions at a Catholic high school are “religious” in nature, and that the first amendment prohibits the civil courts from applying civil rights laws to such positions. In support of its position, the school noted that the contract signed by its teachers stated that all teachers are to “exemplify Christian principles and ideals” in the performance of their duties, and are to open each class with prayer. Further, the school asserted that “parochial school teachers, no matter what the subject matter being taught, are performing a ministerial function … inculcating faith, values, and moral precepts into the students” and that “secular subjects in a parochial school are important vehicles for the propagation of the faith.” The court acknowledged that civil rights laws cannot be applied to ministers or lay employees performing ministerial functions for a church or religious school. It quoted the prevailing test as follows: “[I]f 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 and worship, the first amendment precludes judicial resolution of the dispute.” However, the court concluded that the lay teacher in this case did not satisfy this test. It observed:

[T]he fact that faculty members serve as “exemplars of practicing Christians” does not automatically make their duties ministerial …. A teacher of secular subjects need not be considered a religious leader. Here … enforcing the prohibition against discrimination would have no impact on religious belief, doctrine, or practice …. Thus, since the underlying dispute does not turn on doctrine or polity, the court should not abdicate its duty to enforce secular rights.

Application. This case illustrates an important point-while most courts have ruled that civil rights laws do not apply to ministers (or lay employees performing ministerial functions), many courts have been willing to apply such laws to lay employees who do not perform ministerial functions. The court in this case quoted the test most commonly used by the courts. This test asks whether or not an employee’s primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship. The court refused to extend this test to a lay teacher (of English and history) at a Catholic school. Gallo v. Salesian Society, Inc., 676 A.2d 580 (N.J. Super. 1996). [Labor Laws, Terminat ion of Employees, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes]

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