Editor’s note: In March of 2022, the US Supreme Court declined Gordon College’s appeal to dismiss this lawsuit under the “ministerial exception” doctrine. This means the case can continue to proceed at the trial court level. Four justices released a public statement indicating the Court eventually will need to rule on whether the doctrine applies to professors at religious colleges and universities, either through a later appeal made in this case or through a different case in the future.
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.
A Massachusetts court ruled that the ministerial exception did not bar a teacher at a religious college from litigating a discrimination claim.
In 2017, a tenured associate professor (the plaintiff) of social work at a Christian College (the “college”) in Massachusetts sued the college. She claimed the college unlawfully retaliated against her for her vocal opposition to the school’s policies and practices regarding individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer by denying her application for promotion to full professor, despite the fact that the faculty senate unanimously recommended her for the promotion.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts concluded that the college is a religious institution, but the plaintiff was not a ministerial employee, and therefore her discrimination claim was not barred by the ministerial exception. The ministerial exception is a judicially recognized legal doctrine that generally prohibits civil courts from resolving employment discrimination lawsuits brought by ministerial employees.
The court stressed that the plaintiff’s duties as an associate professor of social work differed significantly from cases where the ministerial exception has been applied, as she did not teach religion or religious texts, lead her students in prayer, take students to chapel services or other religious services, deliver sermons at chapel services, or select liturgy.
Were all of the college’s professors ministers?
The court conceded that the most difficult aspect of this case was how to evaluate the college’s argument that its professors, regardless of the courses they taught, were responsible to integrate their Christian faith into their teaching.
Was this “integration” responsibility sufficient to render a professor a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception? The court concluded that it was not, noting that “the plaintiff was expected and required to be a Christian teacher and scholar, but not a minister.”
In support of its conclusion, the court noted that the characterization of all faculty as “ministers” was not reflected in the faculty handbook until 2016, when the college administration added the following paragraph to the handbook at the urging of its legal counsel:
One of the distinctives of [the college] is that each member of faculty is expected to participate actively in the spiritual formation of our students into godly, biblically-faithful ambassadors for Christ. Faculty members should seek to engage our students in meaningful ways to strengthen them in their faith walks with Christ. In the [college’s] context, faculty members are both educators and ministers to our students.
The court noted:
This language was drafted by . . . [the college’s attorney]. The handbook did not previously use the term “minister” to describe faculty. Faculty were not informed of this change to the handbook. After they discovered the language, it was discussed at a faculty meeting in the fall of 2017, the minutes of which state: “The language was composed by [the college’s attorney] and not the administration for legal reasons. This was due to cultural shifts relating to religious liberty to ‘shore up’ our governing documents. This allows us to trigger judicial deference to protect our First Amendment rights.”
Multiple professors stated in affidavits that there was “serious opposition” to the addition of this language, in large part due to concerns that it was inaccurate, misleading, and “a significant departure from [both] the faculty’s own sense of their responsibilities and calling at [the college]” and “[the college’s] long-standing ethos.”
The [college’s] chapter of the American Association of University Professors issued the following formal statement in response to the addition:
We respectfully disagree with the designation of faculty as “Ministers” in the most recent version of the Faculty Handbook. . . . Adopting the language of “Minister” in a presumed attempt to bring faculty within the scope of the Ministerial Exception at best effects a mere change of label while wrongly describing the faculty role within the College. Attempting to shoehorn faculty into this employment category is at odds with our desire to live in a distinctive Christian community as “Teacher-Scholars.”
The court noted that in its most recent case involving the ministerial exception, the United States Supreme Court concluded that teachers at Roman Catholic primary schools were “ministers.” Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020).
Our Lady of Guadalupe involved two teachers at Roman Catholic primary schools who sued their employers after demotion and discharge. The US Supreme Court recognized the vital importance of education in the faith to many religions and applied that understanding to their analysis, concluding that the teachers were ministers.
Quoting Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Massachusetts court stated:
“As elementary school teachers responsible for providing instruction in all subjects, including religion, they were the members of the school staff who were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the faith. And not only were they obligated to provide instruction about the Catholic faith, but they were also expected to guide their students, by word and deed, toward the goal of living their lives in accordance with the faith. They prayed with their students, attended Mass with the students, and prepared the children for their participation in other religious activities. . . . Their titles did not include the term “minister,” and they had less formal religious training, but their core responsibilities as teachers of religion were essentially the same. And both their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital part in carrying out the mission of the church.”
The Massachusetts court explained:
We recognized that some of the language employed in Our Lady of Guadalupe may be read more broadly, in a way that would include every educator at a religious institution. As [the college] has stated, the integrative function applies to all teachers at the college, whether they teach computer science, calculus, or comparative religion. . . .
It would also apply, [the college] implies, to all its employees, as integrating the Christian faith into daily life and work is part of the college’s mission for everyone in the community, whether they be coaches, food service workers, or transportation providers.
The court then expressed this concern:
This would provide a significant expansion of the ministerial exception well beyond “individuals who play certain key roles” in a religious institution. . . . It would also change the existing understanding of those “personnel who are essential to the performance” of the religious instructions, services, and rituals.
The court concluded:
The integration of religious faith and belief with daily life and work is a common requirement in many, if not all, religious institutions. As a result, the breadth of this expansion of the ministerial exception and its eclipsing and elimination of civil law protection against discrimination would be enormous. . . .
Thus, the significant expansion of the ministerial exception doctrine requested by [the college] is not dictated nor, do we believe, directed by existing Supreme Court precedent. It is our understanding that the ministerial exception has been carefully circumscribed to avoid any unnecessary conflict with civil law.
What this means for churches
The following five conclusions could be drawn from this case:
- To invoke the ministerial exception, an employer need not be a traditional religious organization, so long as its “mission is marked by clear or obvious religious characteristics.” Under this test, the Christian college in this case was clearly a religious institution.
- The ministerial exception applies to ministerial employees but is not limited to the heads of religious congregations.
- Attempts by churches and other religious ministries to invoke the protections of the ministerial exception by enlisting attorneys to amend job descriptions and employee handbooks to characterize many or all employees as “ministerial” may be unsuccessful in achieving the desired result.
- The Massachusetts court recognized that “some of the language employed in Our Lady of Guadalupe may be read more broadly, in a way that would include every educator at a religious institution.” This is certainly true, and there will doubtless be many religious schools and other institutions to which the ministerial exception will apply.
- Many courts will disagree with this court’s narrow interpretation of the term “minister” in applying the ministerial exception. A strong argument can be made in Pauline theology that all of the faculty and staff at a religious school are “ministers,” and for many religious schools this is as important a doctrinal tenet as the Eucharist.
DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College, 2021 Mass. LEXIS 147 (2021).