THE MINISTERIAL EXCEPTION GRAVITY WELL

The Ministerial Exception, generally a rule that prohibits court review of religious organization employment decisions, would seem simple enough. But, lawsuits to survive must escape its pull. Generally, the former employee plaintiff will contend they are not a minister. This claim is often made in the face of common sense when even slight common sense would demand the person must have been a type of minister. Sometimes religious organizations muddy the water by claiming every employee is a minister, confusing their doctrinal view that every member is a minister even though some people are paid to do non-ministry work because no one else is called to donate the service.

In Yin v Columbia International University, Slip Op. (D SC 2018), the Plaintiff was terminated due to a financial downturn. The Plaintiff was otherwise not criticized for her service as a professor. The Plaintiff sued claiming violation of federal employment laws. The Defendant was a religious school and its primary mission was training ministers. As a faculty member, the Plaintiff signed an undertaking to be responsible for certain religious duties. The Plaintiff, for example, started classes with prayer and the Plaintiff led chapel services. But, the Plaintiff alleged the Plaintiff’s faculty position was “academic” and not religious. The Plaintiff alleged the job title was secular and not religious. Based on the substance of the Plaintiff’s job, including religious duties and the Plaintiff’s obligation to prepare students for ministry, the Court held the case was “extremely close” but granted summary judgment on the Ministerial Exception and dismissed the case with prejudice.

Religious organizations defending employment cases should not do so complacently even if the outcome seems predestined. The Ministerial Exception is typically classified as an affirmative defense, and affirmative defenses often present a factual question from the perspective of the Court hearing the facts for the first time even if from the perspective of the religious organization everything seems obvious. The religious organization’s governing documents, employment manuals, and employee specific documentation should be organized and presented at the earliest opportunity. Otherwise, the lawsuit might escape from the tidal forces of the Ministerial Exception and keep the case alive through many thousands of dollars in legal fees.

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