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Civil Court Review of Clergy Termination Disputes—the General Rule of Non-Intervention

§ 2.04.01
Key point 2-04.01. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

1. THE SUPREME COURT'S HOSANNA-TABOR RULING

In a unanimous 2012 ruling, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the so-called "ministerial exception" barring civil court review of employment disputes between churches and ministers.[78] Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012). The ministerial exception has been applied to a wide range of employment disputes by state and federal courts over the past half century, but had never before been addressed by the Supreme Court.

The case involved a Michigan church (the "Church") affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) that operated a small school offering a "Christ-centered education" to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The Synod classifies teachers into two categories: "called" and "lay." "Called" teachers are regarded as having been called to their vocation by God through a congregation. To be eligible to receive a call from a congregation, a teacher must satisfy certain academic requirements. One way of doing so is by completing a "colloquy" program at a Lutheran college or university. The program requires candidates to take eight courses of theological study, obtain the endorsement of their local Synod district, and pass an oral examination by a faculty committee. A teacher who meets these requirements may be called by a congregation. Once called, a teacher receives the formal title "Minister of Religion, Commissioned," and serves until his or her call is rescinded for cause and by a supermajority vote of the congregation.

"Lay" or "contract" teachers, by contrast, are not required to be trained by the LCMS or even to be Lutheran. At the Church, they were appointed by the school board, without a vote of the congregation, to one-year renewable terms. Although teachers at the school generally performed the same duties regardless of whether they were lay or called, lay teachers were hired only when called teachers were unavailable.

A woman (the "plaintiff") was first employed by the Church as a lay teacher in 1999. After she completed her colloquy later that school year, the Church asked her to become a called teacher. She accepted the call and received a "diploma of vocation" designating her a commissioned minister. She taught kindergarten during her first four years at the Church's school and fourth grade during the 2003-2004 school year. She taught math, language arts, social studies, science, gym, art, and music. She also taught a religion class four days a week, led the students in prayer and devotional exercises each day, and attended a weekly school-wide chapel service. She led the chapel service herself about twice a year.

The plaintiff became ill in June 2004 with what was eventually diagnosed as narcolepsy. Symptoms included sudden and deep sleeps from which she could not be roused. Because of her illness, she began the 2004-2005 school year on disability leave. On January 27, 2005, however, the plaintiff notified the school principal that she would be able to report to work the following month. The principal responded that the school had already contracted with a lay teacher to fill her position for the remainder of the school year. The principal also expressed concern that the plaintiff was not yet ready to return to the classroom.

On January 30, the Church held a meeting of its congregation at which school administrators stated that the plaintiff was unlikely to be physically capable of returning to work that school year or the next. The congregation voted to offer her a "peaceful release" from her call, whereby the congregation would pay a portion of her health insurance premiums in exchange for her resignation as a called teacher. The plaintiff refused to resign and produced a note from her doctor stating that she would be able to return to work on February 22. The school board urged her to reconsider, informing her that the school no longer had a position for her, but she stood by her decision not to resign.

On the morning of February 22—the first day she was medically cleared to return to work—the plaintiff presented herself at the school. The principal asked her to leave but she would not do so until she obtained written documentation that she had reported to work. Later that afternoon, the principal called the plaintiff at home and told her that she would likely be fired. The plaintiff responded that she had spoken with an attorney and intended to assert her legal rights.

Following a school board meeting that evening, the board chairman sent the plaintiff a letter stating that the Church was reviewing the process for rescinding her call in light of her "regrettable" actions. The board chairman sent a second letter advising the plaintiff that the congregation would consider whether to rescind her call at its next meeting. As grounds for termination, the letter cited her "insubordination and disruptive behavior" on February 22, as well as the damage she had done to her "working relationship" with the school by "threatening to take legal action" contrary to the Lutheran view that internal church disputes should be resolved within the church and not in the civil courts. The congregation voted to rescind the plaintiff's call on April 10, and the Church sent her a letter of termination the next day.

The plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that her employment had been terminated in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of disability. It also prohibits an employer from retaliating "against any individual because such individual has opposed any act or practice made unlawful by [the ADA] or because such individual made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under [the ADA]."

The EEOC brought suit against the Church, alleging that the plaintiff had been fired in retaliation for threatening to file an ADA lawsuit. The plaintiff intervened in the litigation, claiming unlawful retaliation under both the ADA and a state disabilities law. The plaintiff and EEOC sought her reinstatement to her former position along with backpay, compensatory and punitive damages, attorney's fees, and other relief.

The Church asked the court to dismiss the case. Invoking what is known as the "ministerial exception," the Church argued that the suit was barred by the First Amendment because the claims at issue concerned the employment relationship between a religious institution and one of its ministers. According to the Church, the plaintiff was a minister, and she had been fired for a religious reason—namely, that her threat to sue the Church violated the Synod's belief that Christians should resolve their disputes internally.

A federal district court dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of the ministerial exception, but a federal appeals court reversed this ruling on the ground that the plaintiff was not a "minister," and the primary duties of "called" teachers were identical to those of contract teachers who do not have the title of minister. The Church appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. In January of 2012 the Court issued a decision explicitly recognizing the ministerial exception and concluding that it barred the civil courts from resolving the plaintiff's disability and retaliation claims. The Court concluded that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from "interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select" their clergy.

Significantly, the Supreme Court for the first time explicitly acknowledged that the ministerial exception is required by the First Amendment:

We agree that there is such a ministerial exception. The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.

Having concluded that there is a ministerial exception that bars the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and their ministers, the Court examined whether the exception applied to the plaintiff in this case. It concluded that it did.

The Court declined "to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister." But it concluded that the plaintiff in this case, a called teacher and commissioned minister in a Lutheran school, was a minister to whom the ministerial exception applied. As a result, her claims of disability discrimination and retaliation against a church-operated school had to be dismissed.

In support of its decision that the plaintiff was a minister, the Court cited the following facts:

1. The church held out the plaintiff as a minister, with a role distinct from that of most of its members.
  • When the church extended her a call, it issued her a "diploma of vocation" granting her the title "Minister of Religion, Commissioned."
  • She was tasked with performing her duties "according to the Word of God and the confessional standards of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as drawn from the Sacred Scriptures."
  • The congregation prayed that God "bless her ministrations to the glory of His holy name, and the building of His church."
  • In a supplement to the diploma, the congregation undertook to periodically review the plaintiff's "skills of ministry" and "ministerial responsibilities," and to provide for her "continuing education as a professional person in the ministry of the Gospel.
2. The plaintiff's title as a minister reflected a significant degree of religious training followed by a formal process of commissioning.
  • To be eligible to become a commissioned minister, the plaintiff had to complete eight college-level courses in subjects including biblical interpretation, church doctrine, and the ministry of the Lutheran teacher.
  • She also had to obtain the endorsement of her local Synod district by submitting a petition that contained her academic transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal statement, and written answers to various ministry-related questions.
  • She had to pass an oral examination by a faculty committee at a Lutheran college.
  • It took her six years to fulfill these requirements. And when she eventually did, she was commissioned as a minister only upon election by the congregation, which recognized God's call to her to teach. At that point, her call could be rescinded only upon a supermajority vote of the congregation—a protection designed to allow her to "preach the Word of God boldly."
3. The plaintiff held herself out as a minister of the church.
  • She accepted the formal call to religious service.
  • She claimed a special housing allowance on her taxes that was available only to employees earning their compensation "in the exercise of the ministry."
  • In a form she submitted to the Synod following her termination, the plaintiff again indicated that she regarded herself as a minister at Hosanna-Tabor, stating: "I feel that God is leading me to serve in the teaching ministry. … I am anxious to be in the teaching ministry again soon."
4. The plaintiff's job duties reflected a role in conveying the church's message and carrying out its mission.
  • The church expressly charged her with "leading others toward Christian maturity" and "teaching faithfully the Word of God, the Sacred Scriptures, in its truth and purity and as set forth in all the symbolical books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church."
  • In fulfilling these responsibilities, the plaintiff taught her students religion four days a week, and led them in prayer three times a day. Once a week, she took her students to a school-wide chapel service, and—about twice a year—she took her turn leading it, choosing the liturgy, selecting the hymns, and delivering a short message based on verses from the Bible.
  • During her last year of teaching, she also led her fourth graders in a brief devotional exercise each morning.
  • As a source of religious instruction, she performed an important role in transmitting the Lutheran faith to the next generation.

The Supreme Court concluded: "In light of these considerations—the formal title given [her] by the church, the substance reflected in that title, her own use of that title, and the important religious functions she performed for the church—we conclude that [she] was a minister covered by the ministerial exception."

The Supreme Court noted that the federal appeals court had made three errors in concluding that the plaintiff was not a "minister." First, it failed to see any relevance in the fact that the plaintiff was a commissioned minister. The Supreme Court observed: "Although such a title, by itself, does not automatically ensure coverage, the fact that an employee has been ordained or commissioned as a minister is surely relevant, as is the fact that significant religious training and a recognized religious mission underlie the description of the employee's position. It was wrong for the Court of Appeals … to say that an employee's title does not matter."

Second, the appeals court "gave too much weight to the fact that lay teachers at the school performed the same religious duties as [the plaintiff]." The Supreme Court observed: "Though relevant, it cannot be dispositive that others not formally recognized as ministers by the church perform the same functions—particularly when, as here, they did so only because commissioned ministers were unavailable."

And, in rejecting the appeals court's conclusion that the ministerial exception did not apply because of the limited time that the teacher devoted to religious tasks, the Court observed: "The issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch. The amount of time an employee spends on particular activities is relevant in assessing that employee's status, but that factor cannot be considered in isolation, without regard to the nature of the religious functions performed."

The Court acknowledged that the teacher's religious duties "consumed only 45 minutes of each workday, and that the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects." However, the Court noted that it was unsure whether any church employees devoted all their time to religious tasks: "The heads of congregations themselves often have a mix of duties, including secular ones such as helping to manage the congregation's finances, supervising purely secular personnel, and overseeing the upkeep of facilities."

The Court concluded:

The case before us is an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church's decision to fire her. Today we hold only that the ministerial exception bars such a suit. …
The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.
Application to Churches and Church Leaders

What is the relevance of this ruling to churches and church leaders? Consider the following points:

1. The ministerial exception is now settled law

While the ministerial exception has been recognized by many state and federal courts over the past half century, it was rejected by a handful of courts. The Supreme Court's decision unequivocally establishes the ministerial exception as a matter of law. This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that the Court's decision was unanimous.

However, note that the Court clarified that:

The case before us is an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church's decision to fire her. Today we hold only that the ministerial exception bars such a suit. We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers. There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.

Nevertheless, there are numerous forms of "employment discrimination" claims under state and federal laws that are directly affected by the Court's ruling, including those banning employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, disability, military status, marital status, sexual orientation, and use of lawful products.

A number of courts in recent years have applied the ministerial exception to compensation disputes between churches and ministers, including claims for backpay, fringe benefits, and overtime compensation. The Court's decision in the Hosanna-Tabor case does not directly address these claims. Its decisive recognition of the ministerial exception in employment discrimination cases undoubtedly makes it more likely that the exception will apply to compensation-based disputes, as many state and lower federal courts have ruled.

2. Who is a "minister?"

After recognizing the existence of a ministerial exception, the Court turned its attention to the meaning of the term "minister." It is important to define this term, since the ministerial exception only insulates employment disputes between churches and ministers from civil court interference.

The Court noted that the term "minister" is not limited "to the head of a religious congregation." But, it declined "to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister." Rather, it chose to address only the plaintiff in this case, a called teacher and commissioned minister in a Lutheran school, and concluded that she was a minister to whom the ministerial exception applied. As a result, her claims of disability discrimination and retaliation against a church-operated school had to be dismissed.

The Supreme Court declined to define the term "minister" in the context of the ministerial exception, choosing rather to let the civil courts define the term in the course of future litigation. A few courts have done so. The leading definitions are the following:

the Rayburn test
The most frequently cited definition of "minister" applied by state and lower federal courts in the context of the ministerial exception was announced by a federal appeals court in 1985.[79] Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164 (4th Cir. 1985). In concluding that an "associate in pastoral care" was a minister, the court laid down the following definition: "The fact that an associate in pastoral care can never be an ordained minister in her church is likewise immaterial. The ministerial exception to Title VII … does not depend upon ordination but upon the function of the position. 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 and worship, he or she should be considered clergy."
the Starkman test
A woman began her employment as choirmaster of a church 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, and she sued the church claiming that she was discharged in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The church claimed that the woman's lawsuit was barred by the First Amendment's religion clauses. 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."
This ruling was affirmed by a federal appeals court. The court noted the following three factors to consider in deciding if a church employee is a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception: (1) Are employment decisions regarding the position at issue made "largely on religious criteria"? (2) Is the employee authorized to perform the ceremonies of the church? (3) Does the employee engage in activities traditionally considered ecclesiastical or religious? The court concluded that the music director was a minister based on an analysis of these three factors. 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 a church is "not required to advance a theological or religious explanation regarding its allegedly illegal employment actions."
In deciding if someone is a minister, the following three factors must be considered: (1) are employment decisions regarding the position made "largely on religious criteria"; (2) is the person authorized to perform the ceremonies of the church; and (3) is the person "engaged in activities traditionally considered ecclesiastical or religious," including whether he or she "attends to the religious needs of the faithful."[80] Starkman v. Evans, 198 F.3d 173 (5th Cir. 1999).

It is likely that the Rayburn and Starkman cases will continue to be used in defining the term "minister" in employment discrimination cases brought by employees who do not satisfy the four factors enumerated by the Supreme Court in the Hosanna-Tabor case.

3. Significance of being ordained, commissioned, or licensed

The Supreme Court noted that the plaintiff's status as a commissioned minister did not, by itself, "automatically ensure coverage" under the ministerial exception. But, it concluded that "the fact that an employee has been ordained or commissioned as a minister is surely relevant, as is the fact that significant religious training and a recognized religious mission underlie the description of the employee's position."

While one's status as an ordained, commissioned, or licensed minister is not determinative or even essential, it is relevant in deciding if a person is a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception.

This aspect of the Court's opinion could serve as justification for liberalizing the current definition of "minister" in the context of federal tax law. There are several provisions in the federal tax code that apply to "ministers," including most notably the housing allowance. The tax code and regulations refer to "ordained, commissioned, or licensed" ministers in describing persons who qualify as ministers for tax purposes. The Tax Court amplified upon this definition in a 1989 ruling, Knight v. Commissioner, 92 T.C. 199 (1989). This definition has been endorsed by the IRS in its audit guidelines for ministers.

Under this test the following five factors must be considered in deciding whether a person is a minister for federal tax reporting: (1) Does the individual administer the "sacraments"? (2) Does the individual conduct worship services? (3) Does the individual perform services in the "control, conduct, or maintenance of a religious organization" under the authority of a church or religious denomination? (4) Is the individual "ordained, commissioned, or licensed"? (5) Is the individual considered to be a spiritual leader by his or her religious body? Only the fourth factor is required in all cases (the individual must be ordained, commissioned, or licensed). The remaining four factors need not all be present for a person to be considered a minister for tax reporting.

By defining the term "minister" to apply only to "ordained, commissioned, or licensed ministers," the tax code, regulations, Tax Court, and the IRS adopted a definition more restrictive than the analysis applied by the Supreme Court in the Hosanna-Tabor case, and this may serve as a basis for liberalizing the Tax Court definition to include persons who perform ministerial functions but who are not formally recognized as ordained, commissioned, or licensed ministers.

4. Time spent performing religious duties

Another important aspect of the Court's ruling in the Hosanna-Tabor case was its conclusion that a finding of ministerial status cannot be based solely on the amount of time a person spends on religious functions. In rejecting the appeals court's conclusion that the ministerial exception did not apply because of the limited time that the teacher devoted to religious tasks, the Court observed: "The issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch. The amount of time an employee spends on particular activities is relevant in assessing that employee's status, but that factor cannot be considered in isolation, without regard to the nature of the religious functions performed."

The Court acknowledged that the teacher's religious duties "consumed only 45 minutes of each workday, and that the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects." However, the Court noted that it was unsure whether any church employees devoted all their time to religious tasks: "The heads of congregations themselves often have a mix of duties, including secular ones such as helping to manage the congregation's finances, supervising purely secular personnel, and overseeing the upkeep of facilities."

This aspect of the Court's rulings will be helpful in several contexts, including the following:

ministerial status for tax purposes

The IRS and the Tax Court in some cases have contended that a person is not a minister for tax purposes because of the limited time the person devotes to religious functions. The Supreme Court concluded in the Hosanna-Tabor case that the plaintiff was a minister despite the fact that her religious duties occupied less than 45 minutes per day. The Court noted that ministerial status cannot be resolved by a stopwatch.

The Court also noted that many ministers devote less than all their time to religious tasks: "The heads of congregations themselves often have a mix of duties, including secular ones such as helping to manage the congregation's finances, supervising purely secular personnel, and overseeing the upkeep of facilities."

This will be a helpful precedent to persons whose ministerial status is challenged by the IRS on the basis of the limited time spent on religious duties.

property tax exemption

Many churches own tracts of vacant land for recreation or future expansion. Are such properties exempt from taxation? Many courts have said no based on the requirement of many state property tax exemption laws that exempt property be used "exclusively" for exempt purposes. How can this requirement be satisfied when a tract of church-owned vacant land is used sporadically or not at all for religious purposes?

Some courts have taken the opposite view, and have ruled that church-owned vacant land may be exempt from tax even though used infrequently for religious purposes. To illustrate, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that a 10-acre tract of largely vacant property that a church had acquired for future expansion was exempt from property taxation due to its occasional use for church purposes. Freeman v. St. Andrew Orthodox Church, Inc., 294 S.W.3d 425 (Ky. 2009). The tax assessor determined that the property was subject to taxation based on its infrequent use for religious purposes. In rejecting the assessor's denial of exemption, the court made the following significant comment:

We recognize that churches are unique. For the most part, they are never "occupied" in the conventional sense. A vast majority of properties owned by institutions of religion such as churches, mosques, tabernacles, temples, and the like, are used for places of worship at specified times and may remain vacant for substantial periods during the week. We further recognize that adjacent facilities, such as activity buildings, gymnasiums, even shelters, may be owned by religious institutions, but perhaps utilized irregularly on an as needed basis. School buildings owned by religious institutions may, in fact, sit idle for a great deal of time. This would not preclude these buildings from being occupied. … It is precisely for these reasons that we find that the trial court's findings were supported substantially by the evidence in this case as to the property not being rented out as residences.

This case is significant because of the court's recognition that many buildings owned by religious, educational, and charitable institutions are vacant for significant periods of time but are nevertheless entitled to exemption because of their occasional exempt use. A university classroom building comes to mind. Such buildings are often vacant for several months during the year. The same is true for many churches, whose property is used for religious purposes for no more than a few hours each week. In many states, the exemption of church property from taxation is limited to property that is "used exclusively for religious worship." And yet, the exempt status of churches that conduct a single, one-hour worship service weekly has never been questioned on the ground of infrequent use.

This conclusion is reinforced by the Supreme Court's ruling in the Hosanna-Tabor case because of the Court's conclusion that the plaintiff was a minister despite the fact that her religious duties "consumed only 45 minutes of each workday, and that the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects." The Court noted that "the heads of congregations themselves often have a mix of duties, including secular ones such as helping to manage the congregation's finances, supervising purely secular personnel, and overseeing the upkeep of facilities." This language will be helpful to churches in demonstrating that church-owned vacant land is exempt from taxation despite infrequent use.

Executive Summary

In a ringing endorsement of religious liberty, the United States Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the so-called "ministerial exception" barring civil court review of employment discrimination disputes between churches and ministers. The Court dismissed the claim of teacher at a Lutheran school (who was a commissioned minister) that the school unlawfully discriminated against her on account of her disability.

The Court concluded that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from "interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select" their clergy.

The Court declined "to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception. It concluded that the Lutheran teacher in this case was undoubtedly a minister due to the following four factors: (1) she was a commissioned minister and called teacher; (2) her ministerial status was conferred following extensive religious training and an oral exam; (3) the teacher held herself out as a minister, by claiming a housing allowance and accepting the church's formal call to religious service; and (4) the teacher's job duties demonstrated a role in conveying the church's message and carrying out its mission.

The Court's ruling only applied the ministerial exception in the context of employment discrimination claims involving ministers. The Court left to future litigation the task of more fully defining the reach of the ministerial exception and the definition of "ministers" to whom the exception applies.

The Court rejected the claim that its prior ruling in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) prevented recognition of any ministerial exception.

The Court noted that the purpose of the First Amendment's ban on the establishment of religion was to prevent the new federal government from establishing a church as most of the colonies had done. This explicit understanding of the intent of the establishment clause, by a unanimous Court, may bead to broader accommodation of religion by state and federal agencies and courts.

The Court noted that the teacher's status as a commissioned minister did not, by itself, "automatically ensure coverage" under the ministerial exception. But, it concluded that "the fact that an employee has been ordained or commissioned as a minister is surely relevant, as is the fact that significant religious training and a recognized religious mission underlie the description of the employee's position." This aspect of the Court's opinion could serve as justification for liberalizing the current definition of "minister" in the context of federal tax law.

The Court concluded that a finding of ministerial status cannot be based solely on the amount of time a person spends on religious functions. It observed: "The issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch. The amount of time an employee spends on particular activities is relevant in assessing that employee's status, but that factor cannot be considered in isolation, without regard to the nature of the religious functions performed."

The Court's ruling will reduce the number of employment discrimination and termination claims against churches. This is especially significant given the fact that most church insurance policies exclude "employment practices" from coverage, meaning that churches must retain their own attorneys and pay any settlement or judgment out of church funds.

2. FEDERAL AND STATE COURT DECISIONS

The vast majority of lower federal courts and state courts have followed the general rule of judicial noninterference in ecclesiastical disputes involving the dismissal of clergy, and have ruled that the expulsion of a minister is an ecclesiastical matter that is not reviewable by the civil courts.

Several courts have concluded that the general rule of judicial nonintervention in employment disputes involving churches and clergy extends to collateral claims arising out of the underlying employment dispute, including the following:

  • a church acted improperly in dismissing a minister for a reason not clearly specified in its governing documents;
  • "arbitrariness" (that is, the church or denomination failed to follow the procedure prescribed in its bylaws)
  • violation of a civil or property right (including civil rights protected by a state or federal nondiscrimination law)
  • breach of the employment contract
  • emotional distress
  • defamation
  • fraud or collusion
  • collateral claims can be resolved by the civil courts based on "neutral principles of law".
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