The Ministerial Exception and Lawsuits

A federal court in Washington ruled that the “ministerial exception” prevented it from resolving several claims against a religious organization.

Church Law & Tax Report

The Ministerial Exception and Lawsuits

A federal court in Washington ruled that the “ministerial exception” prevented it from resolving several claims against a religious organization.

Key point 8-06. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying civil rights laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.

Key point 8-08.2. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It consists of both “quid pro quo” harassment and “hostile environment” harassment. Religious organizations that are subject to Title VII are covered by this prohibition. An employer is automatically liable for supervisory employees’ acts of harassment, but a defense is available to claims of hostile environment harassment if they have adopted a written harassment policy and an alleged victim fails to pursue remedies available under the policy. In some cases, an employer may be liable for acts of sexual harassment committed by nonsupervisory employees, and even non-employees.

Key point 8-17. The Fair Labor Standards Act mandates that employers pay the minimum wage, and overtime compensation, to employees who work for an enterprise engaged in commerce. There is no exception for religious organizations, but there are exceptions for certain classifications of employees.

* A federal court in Washington ruled that the “ministerial exception” prevented it from resolving several claims brought by a seminary student against a religious organization, including sexual harassment; retaliation; negligent hiring, retention, and supervision; violation of a state minimum wage law; and emotional distress. A seminary student from Mexico (the “victim”) was assigned to a parish in Washington to assist the officiating priest. He performed several duties including assisting the officiating priest in the conduct of worship services, answering the phone for the church, working with the church youth group, and setting appointments for couples seeking marriage counseling. The victim claimed that he was sexually harassed on numerous occasions by the officiating priest. To illustrate, he alleged that the priest frequently sent him sexually explicit emails and videos, repeatedly asked him to have dinner with him, told him that he was very handsome, dedicated songs to him, told him that he believed the church should accept homosexuals, and made sexual advances toward him during two spiritual retreats. The victim complained of this behavior to the archdiocese, which resulted in an internal investigation and the transfer of the victim to another parish. The victim claimed that the archdiocese took additional adverse actions against him on account of his accusations, and as a result he sued the archdiocese in federal court. The lawsuit asserted several grounds for relief, including (1) sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; (2) negligent hiring, retention and supervision of employees; (3) violations of the state minimum wage law; and (4) emotional distress.

Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars “covered employers” from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of the race, color, national origin, sex (including sexual harassment), or religion of an employee or applicant for employment. Covered employers are those engaged in commerce and employing 15 or more employees.

The court acknowledged that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom has created a “ministerial exception” to Title VII, and that this exception prohibits a court from “inquiring into the decisions of a religious organization concerning the hiring, firing, promotion, rate of pay, placement or any other employment related decision concerning ministers and other non-secular church employees.” Further, the courts may make “a factual evaluation of the function of the position, rather than looking solely to ordination, in deciding whether the ministerial exception applies to a particular employee.” The court noted that the victim was directly engaged in the spiritual functions of the church, and so the ministerial exception applied even though he was not an ordained minister.

However, the court cautioned that ministerial exception “does not foreclose all employment claims against a religious employer, but simply limits them.” When a sexual harassment claim is made against a religious employer, “a plaintiff must show that he was sexually harassed and that the harassment created a hostile work environment. Because the evaluation of a sexual harassment claim involves an entirely secular inquiry that does not intrude into areas concerning the doctrines of a religious organization, it is allowed.”

If an employee creates a “hostile work environment” due to acts of sexual harassment, his or her employer may be liable in two situations:

First, if the hostile work environment results in an adverse employment action (i.e., discipline, dismissal) against a victim of the harassment, the employer may be held liable. The court concluded that the First Amendment prohibited a religious organization from being liable on this basis for sexual harassment committed by a member of the clergy. It observed, “The archdiocese is able to choose its representatives free from government interference and in accordance with the dictates of its faith and conscience. Because the federal judiciary cannot evaluate whether its employment decision was based on legitimate or illegitimate reasons without offending the First Amendment, such an inquiry is forbidden.”

Second, liability can be imposed on an employer for allowing a hostile work environment to exist. However, to avoid liability in this second scenario, an employer can assert a special affirmative defense. This affirmative defense has two elements. First, the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior. Second, a victim of the harassment unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by the employer, or otherwise failed to avoid the alleged harm. The court noted that “the success of this defense requires a court to perform an inquiry into the actions of both the employer and the employee. However, the power of a court to conduct this inquiry is limited when a sexual harassment claim is made against a religious employer by an employee covered by the ministerial exception.” The court may only consider the following three questions: (1) Was the victim subjected to a hostile work environment? (2) If so, did he exercise reasonable care to correct that environment? (3) Did he unreasonably fail to avail himself of those measures?


Title VII prohibits employers from “retaliating” against victims of employment discrimination who challenge the discrimination. The victim in this case claimed that the archdiocese retaliated against him after he complained of the priest’s conduct by transferring him to another parish and reducing his duties. The court noted that a retaliation claim requires a victim of discrimination to prove that he or she suffered an “adverse employment action” as a result of disclosing the discrimination to the employer. However, the court concluded that “decisions concerning promotions, transfers, rates of pay, selection of assignments, and duties performed are all protected choice matters of church administration, and the court is prohibited from evaluating them. The victim is foreclosed, as a matter of law, from relying on these protected decisions as acts of retaliation.”

Negligent hiring, retention, and supervision

The victim claimed that the ministerial exception applied only to Title VII claims, and did not prevent him from suing the archdiocese for negligent hiring, retention, and supervision. The court disagreed:

The ministerial exception to Title VII is based not upon Title VII but, rather, on the First Amendment. Just as there is a ministerial exception to Title VII, there must also be a ministerial exception to any state law cause of action that would otherwise impinge on the church’s prerogative to choose its ministers or to exercise its religious beliefs in the context of employing its ministers.

The court pointed out that the very nature of the victim’s negligence claim would require it to evaluate the reasonableness of the archdiocese’s protected employment choices in order to ascertain if it acted negligently in hiring, retaining, or supervising the offending priest. It concluded that “this type of inquiry is prohibited by the First Amendment’s ministerial exception.”

Minimum wage claim

The court dismissed the victim’s claim that the archdiocese violated a state minimum wage law. It concluded:

This claim concerns decisions regarding the rate of pay for non-secular church employees and must also be dismissed under the ministerial exception. The … ministerial exception applies to both state and federal claims, and prohibits a court from inquiring into the decisions of a religious organization concerning the hiring, firing, promotion, rate of pay, placement or any other employment related decision concerning ministers and other non-secular church employees. This most certainly includes questions concerning the amount of compensation owed a visiting seminarian student. Bollard v. California Province of the Society of Jesus, 196 F.3d 940 (9th Cir.1999).

Intentional infliction of emotional distress

The victim claimed that the archdiocese was guilty of intentionally inflicting emotional distress upon him by reporting him to immigration authorities. The court noted that a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress requires conduct that is “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” The court concluded that this high standard was not met by the reporting of the victim to immigration authorities:

There is no possibility that reasonable minds could find that the archdiocese’s reporting of the victim to immigration authorities could be seen as conduct that is beyond all possible bounds of decency. Reporting persons who may be in this country illegally to the authorities is not conduct so extreme as to be unacceptable in civilized society. As a matter of law, reasonable minds could not differ as to whether providing notice to the proper authorities concerning suspected immigration violations rises to a level of outrage.

Application. This case is significant for the following reasons:

1. The court broadly construed the ministerial exception, and applied it not only to a sexual harassment and retaliation claim by a seminary student under Title VII, but also to (1) negligent hiring, retention, and supervision claims involving ministers, and (2) claims by ministers regarding compensation, including their entitlement to minimum wage and overtime under state or federal law.

2. The court ruled that the reporting of a foreign worker to immigration officials did not amount to an infliction of emotional distress for which the employer could be found liable. Alcazar v. Corporation of Catholic Archbishop of Seattle, 2006 WL 3791370 (W.D. Wash. 2006).

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