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Churches in Court

Employment of Clergy

Conflicts between clergy and their employers are fairly common within religious organizations, and courts are often called upon to resolve these disputes. The Supreme Court has decided two cases in this area of law that build on its ruling in Watson v. Jones and other church property decisions.

In the first of these decisions, Gonzalez v. Archbishop of Manila (1929), the Supreme Court ruled that civil courts do not have the authority to determine who is qualified to be a Roman Catholic priest. The high court ruled that such determinations are within the exclusive jurisdiction of religious organizations. In the second ruling, Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich (1976), the Supreme Court held that state courts do not have jurisdiction to determine whether a hierarchical church body acted “arbitrarily” in removing a bishop from office. Citing Watson and other decisions, the court held that the First Amendment precludes civil courts from reviewing the substance of such decisions.

Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich (1976)

Majority: Minority:
Brennan Rehnquist
Burger Stevens

Lower courts have interpreted Gonzalez and Milivojevich – along with the rulings in church property cases – to mean that the First Amendment prohibits courts from adjudicating ministerial employment disputes that bear on a religious organization’s “spiritual functions.” As is the case in property disputes, courts attempting to resolve clergy employment conflicts cannot become entangled in questions that involve the interpretation of religious doctrine. Specifically, courts are not allowed to evaluate the qualifications of clergy. This principle has come to be known as the “ministerial exception,” owing to the fact that it provides an exception to the many federal and state laws that regulate how organizations may treat their employees.

Up to now, the Supreme Court has not expressly ruled on the ministerial exception. On March 28, 2011, however, the high court agreed to hear a case in which the exception is being used by a religious school as a defense in its dismissal of a disabled teacher. The case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, gives the court an opportunity to rule on the extent and scope of the ministerial exception.

The debate over the ministerial exception actually arose out of a statutory exemption from one particular employment regulation, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Title VII contains language allowing religious institutions to give employment preference to members of their own faith when hiring any type of worker, whether or not that employee performs religious functions. But Title VII does not explicitly allow religious organizations to discriminate on the basis of other protected characteristics, such as race or gender. This omission left unanswered a difficult question: When hiring clergy and other employees who perform primarily religious functions, could religious organizations discriminate not just on the basis of religion but also on the basis of other protected characteristics such as race or gender?

The first significant decision to address this question was McClure v. Salvation Army (1972). The case involved a woman, Billie B. McClure, who had been a Salvation Army officer, the Salvation Army’s equivalent of an ordained minister. After she complained that male officers were receiving higher salaries and better benefits than female officers, the Salvation Army fired McClure. She then sued the Salvation Army on the grounds that her firing constituted gender discrimination, in violation of Title VII. After a federal trial court ruled for the Salvation Army, McClure appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Salvation Army made two arguments to the appeals court in defense of its decision to fire McClure: (1) that the exemption for religious employers in Title VII allowed them to engage in gender discrimination with respect to the employment of clergy; and (2) that even if the exemption did not allow gender discrimination in such a case, the statutory prohibition on gender discrimination still did not apply to the Salvation Army in this instance because the First Amendment guarantees religious organizations the right to make ministerial employment decisions free from government regulation.

The 5th Circuit rejected the Salvation Army’s first claim – that the Title VII exemption for religious employers allowed it to engage in gender discrimination. The court explained that the exemption relieves religious employers from liability only when they discriminate on the basis of the employee’s religion. Therefore, the court said, when a religious organization discriminates against an employee on the basis of Title VII’s other protected characteristics – race, color, sex and national origin – the law’s exemption does not protect the organization from liability.

After rejecting this argument, the 5th Circuit turned its attention to the Salvation Army’s second claim – namely that the Free Exercise Clause mandates that religious organizations be free from government regulation when making employment decisions concerning their religious leaders. In considering this argument, the court cited a series of Supreme Court decisions, stretching back to Watson v. Jones, holding that the First Amendment prohibits the government from regulating “matters of church government and administration.” Based on these Supreme Court decisions, the 5th Circuit reasoned that traditional anti-discrimination protections, including those contained in Title VII, do not apply to a religious organization’s ministerial employment decisions. Therefore, the court concluded, because McClure was the Salvation Army’s functional equivalent of an ordained minister, the Salvation Army had the constitutional right to fire her, in spite of the general prohibition on gender discrimination in employment contained in Title VII.

The doctrine announced in McClure soon became known as the “ministerial exception.” In the almost 40 years since the McClure ruling, nearly all of the nation’s federal appeals courts have embraced this exception, and no federal appeals court has ever rejected it. Despite the widespread acceptance of the doctrine, however, courts have offered different constitutional justifications for the ministerial exception. Some courts have reasoned that the ministerial exception arises from the Free Exercise Clause, which guarantees the freedom of religious organizations to express their faith and, by extension, gives them the freedom to choose those who will be responsible for that expression. Other courts have grounded the exception in the Establishment Clause’s ban on excessive entanglement between government and religion. Still others have identified both of the Constitution’s religion clauses as the sources of the ministerial exception.

In applying the ministerial exception, courts face a number of difficult questions. One set of questions concerns the range of employees covered by the exception. All courts agree that the exception covers ordained members of the clergy who are performing tasks ordinarily associated with that role. Courts also agree that employees who have exclusively secular functions, such as bookkeeping or maintenance, do not fall within the ministerial exception. Some employees, however, have positions that include both religious and secular duties, or tasks that are not readily categorized as either. For example, a parochial school teacher may lead classes in both mathematics and religion. In such cases, courts typically ask whether the employee is primarily engaged in religious activities. If so, the ministerial exception applies; if not, the exception does not apply.

Another set of questions involves the types of legal claims to which the ministerial exception applies. Courts have uniformly held that claims of age-, gender- and race-based discrimination, such as those brought under Title VII, are subject to the ministerial exception because those claims often require courts to evaluate a clergy member’s qualifications for, or performance in, a position. Courts apply the same reasoning to claims by clergy members for overtime compensation and workplace accommodations for disabilities. But courts have allowed clergy to bring other types of claims against their religious employers. For example, courts have enforced employment contracts when the religious employer has failed to pay promised wages to a member of the clergy. Resolving such a dispute requires courts only to determine the pay specified under the contract and whether the clergy member performed the required work; it does not require courts to interpret religious doctrine.

Courts have also permitted clergy to sue for sexual harassment in the workplace, because assessment of the plaintiff’s injury from the harassment typically does not require courts to assess the clergy member’s qualifications or job performance. For example, in Black v. Snyder (1991), the associate pastor of an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America congregation in Washburn Park, Minn., claimed that she had been sexually harassed by the congregation’s senior pastor and dismissed from her position because she complained about the harassment. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the ministerial exception barred the court from reviewing the congregation’s decision to terminate the associate pastor, but it did not bar the court from examining her sexual harassment claim. Adjudication of the sexual harassment claim, the court reasoned, does not require an assessment of the associate pastor’s job performance or any other religious issues. Instead, it requires the trial court simply to assess whether the senior pastor engaged in inappropriate conduct or not. (A trial court subsequently determined that the senior pastor had not harassed the associate pastor.)

Photo credit: Jim Pickerell/iStockPhoto

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