Pastor, Church & Law

Cases Not Recognizing the Ministerial Exception

§ 08.10.02

Key Point 8-10.02. Some courts have not recognized the ministerial exception, usually because the complainant was not a minister in either status or function, or was employed by a secular organization. Most of these cases were decided prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hosanna-Tabor case in 2012, and as a result are of dubious value.

A few courts have not applied the ministerial exception, usually because the employee in question was not a “minister.”

Case studies

  • A federal appeals court ruled that in some cases ministers can pursue sexual harassment claims against an employing church without violating the First Amendment. A woman served as associate pastor of a church for one year. Shortly after assuming this position, she claimed that the church’s senior pastor began sexually harassing her and creating a “hostile work environment.” Pastor Ruth made a formal complaint of sexual harassment to the church, which she claimed took no action to stop the harassment or alleviate the hostile working environment. She also claimed that the senior pastor retaliated against her by relieving her of certain duties, verbally abusing her and otherwise engaging in intimidating behavior. Again, the church, which knew or should have known of the senior pastor’s behavior, failed to act. The court noted that to the extent the plaintiff’s claims involved “an inquiry into the church’s decision to terminate her ministry, those claims cannot proceed in civil court and were properly dismissed.” However, the court concluded that she could, consistent with the First Amendment, “attempt to show that she was sexually harassed and that this harassment created a hostile work environment” since this would involve “a purely secular inquiry.” The court concluded: “[There is] no First Amendment basis for shielding the church from its obligation to protect its employees from harassment when extending such protection would not contravene the church’s doctrinal prerogatives or trench upon its protected ministerial decisions.” 79 Elvig v. Calvin Presbyterian Church, 375 F.3d 951 (9th Cir. 2004). See also Braun v. St. Pius X Parish, 2011 WL 5086362 (N.D. Okla.2011).
  • A federal district court for the District of Columbia ruled that a pastor’s age discrimination claim against a denominational agency was barred by the “ministerial exception,” but the court could resolve the pastor’s claims of breach of contract, wrongful eviction, and defamation, so long as doing so would not implicate religious doctrine. 80 Gregorio v. Hoover, 238 F.Supp.3d 37 (D.D.C. 2017).
  • A federal district court in Oklahoma ruled that a Roman Catholic parochial school was exempt from Title VII’s ban on religious discrimination in employment decisions; that the “ministerial exception” did not apply to a teacher employed by the parochial school; and, that the school did not violate age discrimination law in not renewing her contract. 81 Braun v. St. Pius X Parish, 2011 WL 5086362 (N.D. Okla.2011).
  • A New Mexico court ruled that the First Amendment did not prevent it from resolving a claim of wrongful termination by a teacher at a church-operated elementary school because a resolution of the claim would not require the court to interfere with church governance or internal administration. 82 Galetti v. Reeve, 331 P.3d 997 (N.M. App. 2014).
  • A federal court in Pennsylvania ruled that the ministerial exception did not require the dismissal of a sex discrimination lawsuit brought by a lay church employee whose duties were not primarily religious in nature. The court noted that the employee’s duties were clerical in nature. It concluded: “While she collected and maintained church documents and ensured that they contained all of the necessary information, she could not independently rule on the doctrinal legitimacy of documents submitted to her. … Filing and organizing documents, whether they are religious documents or tax forms, is a clerical function. … There is no evidence that her duties required any heightened religious knowledge or spiritual involvement.” The court concluded that for purposes of the ministerial exception “whether an individual is important to the administrative functioning of the church is critically less significant than whether she is important to the spiritual functioning of the church. The lowest-ranking nun or monk in the abbey is still a minister, whereas a clerical or administrative employee, no matter how indispensable, is not. … [The plaintiff’s] primary duties were not sufficiently important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church to render her a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception.” 83 Patsakis v. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 339 F.Supp.2d 689 (W.D. Pa. 2004).

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