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Missouri Federal Court Further Defines “Ministerial Exception”

Lay principal’s lawsuit alleging sex discrimination not allowed to proceed.

Key point 8-10.01. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents them from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.

A federal court in Missouri ruled that the “ministerial exception” prevented it from deciding an employment dispute between a church and a lay principal at the church’s school.


The pastor of a Catholic church (the “defendant church”) within the Archdiocese of St. Louis (the “defendant archdiocese”) interviewed the plaintiff and offered her the position of principal at the church’s elementary school (the “school”). The plaintiff was principal from July 2016 through January 2018. The pastor was her direct supervisor.

The application the plaintiff completed for the position of principal of the school provided that all “administrators in Catholic schools MUST BE ACTIVE PRACTICING CATHOLICS” and required applicants to submit a clergy reference letter.

The application required answers to questions relating to the applicant’s religious beliefs and practices, such as: (1) “describe your belief in God and your relationship with Jesus Christ”; (2) “describe your relationship to and involvement in the Catholic Church in general and your parish in particular”; (3) “define the unique mission of Catholic schools”; (4) “describe . . . the elements of a school’s Catholic identity”; (5) “describe your background in religious education” and “[h]ow . . . this contribute[s] to your work as a Principal/administrator”; and (6) “describe the role for . . . [a r]eligious leader of the school community.”

Along with her application, the plaintiff signed and submitted a two-page document titled “Witness Statement for Those Who Serve in Catholic Education,” which stated:

The mission of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is the mission of the Catholic Church, to reveal God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to all people and to teach them about the fullness of His love. “Indeed the primordial mission of the Church is to proclaim God and to be His witness before the world” (General Directory for Catechesis). The duty and right of educating belongs in a special way to the Church, to which has been divinely entrusted the mission of assisting persons so that they are able to reach the fullness of Christian life. . . .

All who serve in Catholic education in the parish and school program, and Catholic Education Office of the Archdiocese of St. Louis will witness by their public behavior, actions, and words a life consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Public speech or public action contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church promotes scandal, which is a particularly grave offense when given by those who are obliged to teach or educate others (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2285).

Only those persons who can support this Witness Statement are to be employed by pastors, principals and directors/coordinators of religious education.

The witness statement further declared that all who serve in Catholic education in the Archdiocese of St. Louis should be made aware that support of this witness statement must be reflected in their public behavior, including:

  • Believing in Jesus Christ
  • Engaging in a life of prayer and worship
  • Practicing respect and reverence for the dignity of others
  • Exercising prudence with confidential information related to work
  • Being an active member of his/her Church
  • Respecting ecclesial authority

The witness statement concluded:

By my signature below I consent that this [W]itness [S]tatement is incorporated into and forms an integral part of my employment agreement, and further that both shall be interpreted, complied with and enforced pursuant to Canon Law to the exclusion of all other laws.

In June 2016, the plaintiff and the pastor signed an Elementary Lay Principal Agreement (“employment agreement”) for the 2016–2017 school year.

This 12-month contract required the plaintiff to “perform the duties of Catholic educational leadership in the elementary school in a professional and efficient manner to the satisfaction of the Pastor.” The employment agreement further stated that the school “is part of the mission of the Catholic Church therefore the public behavior and statements of [Principal] shall be consistent with the Witness Statement.”

As principal, the plaintiff met weekly with the defendant church’s director of religious education and the pastor. She also attended weekly “parish leadership meetings,” whose purpose was “to check in with all the different ministries and to have clear communication within the parish.”

According to the plaintiff, those meetings often involved “talking and probing about our personal spirituality and experiences.” The pastor expected the plaintiff to attend “pastoral team retreats” and all-staff prayer days at the beginning of each school year. The plaintiff also attended but was not “involved in the planning of[,] First Holy Communion or First Reconciliation or Confirmation.”

The plaintiff “worked with the . . . school administrators of the Archdiocese in [the] area to write the religion curriculum.” At the pastor’s direction, the plaintiff wrote a grant for a three-year plan to “create a caring, safe and Christian environment for all of the stakeholders of the school.” The plaintiff’s plan emphasized “faith formation” and included monthly student body “character/faith rall[ies]” to “celebrate and learn how to deepen our faith.”

After the plaintiff’s first year as principal, the pastor completed a “Pastor’s Summative Report” assessing the plaintiff’s performance.

The pastor wrote that the plaintiff “has made remarkable progress in achieving her identified goals of assisting [teachers] in the improvement of instruction” and “cultivated positive relationships with parents, teachers and students.”

The pastor encouraged the plaintiff “to remain patient with teachers and staff” and he “especially” encouraged her “to continue in her own faith formation, connecting with a spiritual director monthly.”

The plaintiff and the pastor signed a second one-year employment agreement in May of 2017, renewing the employment relationship for the 2017–2018 school year. However, on January 25, 2018, the pastor informed the plaintiff that “it was [his] intention not to renew her contract for a third year as principal.” After some discussion, he agreed to accept a letter of resignation.

Court: the plaintiff “performed important religious functions”

The plaintiff thereafter sued the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the church (the “defendants”) on the ground that they discriminated against her on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In support of her claims, the plaintiff recounted several examples of the pastor treating male employees more favorably than female employees. The defendants asked the court to dismiss the case on the ground that the “ministerial exception” precludes courts from “entertaining Title VII claims concerning the employment decisions of religious institutions.”

The plaintiff countered that the ministerial exception did not bar her Title VII claims against the defendants because she was an “instructional leader,” not a “spiritual leader.”

The court agreed with the defendants that it was barred by the ministerial exception from resolving the plaintiff’s claims. It concluded:

To “ensure that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful—a matter strictly ecclesiastical—is the church’s alone,” the United State Supreme Court has recognized a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws. . . . Under the ministerial exception “courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions” [quoting the Supreme Court’s ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020)]. . . .

The Supreme Court declined to adopt a “rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister” for purpose of the exception. . . . Instead, courts must “take all relevant circumstances into account . . . to determine whether each particular position implicated the fundamental purpose of the exception.” [Id.] “[A]pplication of the ‘ministerial exception’ should ‘focus on the function performed by persons who work for religious bodies’” and “should apply to any ‘employee who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of the faith.’” Id. . . . In other words, “[w]hat matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.” Id.

The court added:

Here, although Plaintiff’s job title was “lay principal,” the record reflects that her primary responsibilities included religious instruction and faith formation in furtherance of Defendants’ mission to educate and form students in the Catholic faith. Indeed, the documents memorializing the employment relationship, specifically Defendants’ employment application, Witness Statement, and Employment Agreements, “specified in no uncertain terms” that Defendants expected Plaintiff to “help the school carry out [its] mission.”

The court noted:

Most significantly, the . . . record demonstrates that Plaintiff performed “important religious functions for Defendants. . . . For example, Plaintiff, along with other Catholic school administrators, wrote Defendants’ religion curriculum. Plaintiff also wrote a grant, which [the pastor] approved, for Defendants to create a caring, safe and Christian environment” focused on faith formation to “support and guide [students] on their journey to deepen their faith and their relationship with God and to achieve at high levels.”

The court concluded:

In short, the record . . . establishes that Plaintiff and Defendants considered Plaintiff a spiritual leader of the school and she performed important religious functions to advance Defendants’ Catholic mission. . . . The Court therefore finds that the ministerial exception bars Plaintiff’s claims of employment discrimination.”

What this means for churches

This case provides helpful guidance in the definition of the term “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception.

The ministerial exception is a legal doctrine based upon the First Amendment’s religion clauses. In general, it prevents the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and clergy. In 2012, the United States Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the doctrine, but declined to define the term “minister.” That is understandable, since it would be difficult to fashion a definition that would apply in all cases. The Supreme Court left the definition of this essential term to other courts in future cases.

The court in this case, in concluding that a lay principal in a parochial school was a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception, relied on language in the Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School.

Quoting Our Lady of Guadalupe, the court in this case stated:

“[A]pplication of the ‘ministerial exception’ should ‘focus on the function performed by persons who work for religious bodies’” and “should apply to any employee who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of the faith.’” . . . In other words, “[w]hat matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.”

Zaleuke v. Archdiocese of St. Louis, 2021 WL 5161732 (E.D. Mo. 2021)

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