FIRING THE ORGANIST

Federal employment laws do not apply to ministers pursuant to the Ministerial Exception Doctrine.  The label “Ministerial Exception Doctrine” refers to a branch of decisions arising under the First Amendment.  It is a subset of the Ecclesiastical Exception Doctrine.  The Ecclesiastical Exception Doctrine is an outgrowth from the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  The Ministerial Exception Doctrine generally prohibits a court from exercising jurisdiction over the employment of ministers (which includes, of course, pastors, priests, and many other titles).  The problem remaining is identifying the duties in churches that are equal to or equivalent to ministers in such a way as to trigger the Ministerial Exception Doctrine.

Many religious organizations have tried labeling their employees, all of them, as “ministers” or describing their jobs to include one or more typically ministerial duties.  The scope of the Ministerial Exception Doctrine was confirmed in Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  In Hosanna Tabor, the employee was a religious school teacher that had ministerial duties such as teaching religion classes.  But, the outer perimeter of the Ministerial Exception Doctrine remains fuzzy.

In Sterlinski v The Catholic Bishop of Chicago, Memorandum Opinion and Order (ND ILL. ED 2017), the Plaintiff was demoted from the position of Director of Music.  There was no viable claim based solely on the demotion because the position of Director of Music was held to be a ministerial position.  The position was found to be ministerial because the Director of Music was responsible for selecting the liturgical music, holding practice for the church choirs, church management activities and representing the church at denomination level music committee meetings.  Claims for the firing were dismissed.  The holding that a Director of Music was sufficiently ministerial to trigger the Doctrine was to be expected.

But, Plaintiff was demoted from the full time position of Director of Music with the aforementioned duties to a part-time position as organist.  As a part-time organist, Plaintiff did not seem based on the record before the Court to have discretion over worship or other religious activities.  Indeed, the Court mused that if the part-time organist merely played what was assigned by someone else, the position might no longer be sufficiently ministerial to trigger the Doctrine.  Because the record did not appear sufficiently developed to fully describe Plaintiff’s actual duties as part-time organist, the Court refused to dismiss the firing claims and ordered the parties to conduct discovery limited to the duties of the part-time organist.

One lesson to be derived is that in employment decisions, mercy will be punished.  If the Plaintiff had been fired while employed as Director of Music, no claim would have remained due to the Ministerial Exception Doctrine.  Another lesson is that churches should not expect the secular world to understand that public worship musicians and vocalists “set the stage” for preaching and are as important in worship.  That they do not is surprising because there are similar situations such as a professional baseball game that without an organist, at least during the “7th inning stretch” might be disquieting or like a rock concert without drums.  A final lesson is that the employment relationship rarely survives partial measures like a demotion from full time to part-time or a substantial reduction in authority.  A clean break is usually better.

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