As you may well know, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters of faith and doctrine without government intrusion. This is one of the core principles our nation was founded on: freedom of religion.
Most are aware of this principle, however, far fewer are aware of the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception.” The ministerial exception is a narrow offshoot of the broader church autonomy doctrine that serves to preclude employment discrimination claims brought by a minister against their religious employer. It has been a while since our employees’ rights attorneys have addressed the ministerial exception withing the context of employment discrimination and wrongful termination. (Best Law Read: Can My Church Refuse To Hire Gay Cooks? Best LGBT Lawyer Help!; Can I Sue A Religious Employer For Employment Discrimination? I Need A Lawyer!). The recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Tucker v. Faith Bible Chapel Int’l, decided June 7, 2002, gives us a good reason to circle back to this issue.
Can a church or religious organization can avoid liability for discrimination claims by asserting the ministerial exception?
Best Employment Discrimination Attorney Answer: Yes and no. Let’s look closer at the Tucker. This case involves Faith Christian Academy, which is a Christian school offering Bible-based education from kindergarten through high school. Tucker began teaching high school science at the school in 2000. Later he also taught courses entitled “Leadership” and “Worldviews and World Religions.” In 2014, Faith Christian hired Tucker for the additional job of chaplain, a position also referred to as the Director of Student Life. In 2017, Tucker was assigned the additional task of planning Faith Christian’s weekly “Chapel Meetings.”
In January 2018, Tucker conducted a chapel meeting on race and faith. Although Faith Christian initially congratulated Tucker on the presentation, that presentation was not well-received by some parents and students. As a result, the school relieved Tucker of his duties preparing and conducting weekly chapel meetings and soon thereafter removed him from his position as Director of Student Life. At the end of February 2018, the school also fired him from his teaching position.
In response, Tucker filed a lawsuit alleging that the school fired him in retaliation for opposing a racially hostile environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is the federal employment law that makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate or fire employees based on that employee’s race/color, religion, gender/sex (including pregnancy and LGBTQ+ status), or national origin. Faith Christian moved to dismiss the action asserting that the ministerial exception applied to bar the government from interfering with their decision to fire one of their “ministers.” The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado denied Faith Christian’s motion. Faith Christian immediately appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
Regarding the ministerial exception, the Tenth Circuit found that “a church’s independence on matters “of faith and doctrine” requires the authority to select, supervise, and if necessary, remove a minister without interference by secular authorities. Without that power, a wayward minister’s preaching, teaching, and counseling could contradict the church’s tenets and lead the congregation away from the faith. The ministerial exception was recognized to preserve a church’s independent authority in such matters. Id. at 2060–61 (footnote omitted); see also Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171, 196, 132 S. Ct. 694, 695, 181 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2012).
However, the Tenth Circuit expressly held that: “Because it is well established that a religious employer does not ‘enjoy a general immunity from secular laws,’ … the ‘ministerial exception’ does not preclude discrimination claims brought by a religious employer’s non-ministerial employees. Id. (quoting Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049, 2060, 207 L. Ed. 2d 870 (2020); citing link here. Rayburn v. Gen. Conf. of Seventh-Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164, 1169 (4th Cir. 1985); Skrzypczak v. Roman Catholic Diocese, 611 F.3d 1238, 1245–46 (10th Cir. 2010)).
Thus, and most importantly, the “ministerial exception” is triggered only when the plaintiff-employee in a Title VII case qualifies as a “minister.”
But let’s go back and answer the question posed above: can a church or religious organization avoid liability for discrimination claims? Yes, they can where the ministerial exception applies to give the religious organization an affirmative defense when sued for discrimination by employees who qualify as ministers. However, they cannot escape liability under this exception when sued for discrimination by non-minister employees.
Who can a church or religious institution designate as a minister to block discrimination and wrongful termination cases?
Best Employees’ Rights Law Firm Answer: Given all of this, you may be asking, “Who qualifies as a minister?” Well, according to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, “…any employee who serves in a position that ‘is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church.’” can be considered a minister. Skrzypczak, 611 F.3d at 1243 (quoting Rayburn, 772 F.2d at 1169 (4th Cir.)). The court went on to state that they first considered the employer’s evidence of the plaintiff-employee’s job duties, determining that that “evidence … tends to show her position was not limited to a merely administrative role, but it also involved responsibilities that furthered the core of the spiritual mission of the Diocese.” 611 F.3d at 1243.
That sounds ambiguous, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear, in both Hosanna-Tabor and Our Lady, that this threshold determination of whether an employee is a “minister” for purposes of the “ministerial exception” requires a fact-intensive inquiry into the specific circumstances of a given case. See Our Lady, 140 S. Ct. at 2067 (“call[ing] on courts to take all relevant circumstances into account and to determine whether each particular position implicated the fundamental purpose of the exception”); see also id. at 2063 (stating that, “[i]n determining whether a particular position falls within the Hosanna-Tabor exception, a variety of factors may be important.”); id. at 2066 (noting that in Our Lady “[t]here is abundant record evidence that [the plaintiffs-employees] both performed vital religious duties,” discussing that evidence at length); Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 190–94, 132 S.Ct. 694 (considering, in significant detail, “all the circumstances of [the employee’s] employment”).
Does a judge or a jury decide if the ministerial exception applies to my wrongful firing case?
Best Wrongful Termination Lawyer Answer: The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Tucker held that the question of whether Tucker was a minister was not a question of law for the court to determine, but instead was a question of fact for the jury to decide. Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit dismissed the appeal of Faith Christian’s motion for summary judgment. The remainder of the case, and the determination of whether Tucker is classified as a minister subject to the First Amendment’s ministerial exception, will play out in the district court. We will certainly keep an eager eye on this one.
How do I know If I am classified as a minister under the ministerial exception?
Best Employment Lawyer Answer: Each employee’s situation will be different. The best thing you can do is hire an attorney that is well versed in Title VII employment disputes and has a history of fighting employers, religious or otherwise, in court. Employment discrimination, sexual harassment, and wrongful termination cases are very complex to begin with before adding in issues with religious institutions. There is no reason to attempt to figure out your
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