We have reported on opinions of the United States Courts of Appeals that focus on the struggle to determine when a religious organization employee is sufficiently religious that it makes the employer immune from an employment claim brought pursuant to a federal discrimination statute. These cases struggle with whether an employee is sufficiently ministerial in their duties to trigger the Ministerial Exception. From the United States Supreme Court came a four element test to apply to determine the applicability of the Ministerial Exception: “formal title;” the “substance of the title;” the employee’s “use of the title;” and the employee’s “religious functions.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v EEOC, 565 US 171, 188-89 (2012). The struggle comes about when an employer can prove only one or two of the tests apply. The ultimate implication is that some religious employers may have to compromise or abandon their beliefs to avoid interference from the federal discrimination laws.
In Hutson v Concord Christian School, Memorandum Opinion (ED Tenn. 2019), the federal trial court granted summary judgment to the school that terminated an elementary school teacher because she was pregnant out of wed lock. Setting aside religious or moral arguments, the question the Court answered was whether an elementary school teacher’s position was sufficiently religious to trigger the Ministerial Exception and shield the religious employer behind the First Amendment. The first factor, title, weighed against the school because “elementary school teacher” was not religious. But, because the school’s policies, handbook, and many other documents confirmed the elementary school teacher was supposed to perform, too, as an evangelist, religion teacher, and be “called” to the role, the second element, “substance” weighed in favor of the school. The third element, use of the title by the Plaintiff, weighed against the school because there was no evidence Plaintiff considered or called herself a “minister.” The fourth element, called the “key factor” by the Court, weighed in favor of the school because the teacher’s function included leading devotions and teaching Bible lessons. The Court concluded that the second and fourth elements were sufficient to trigger the Ministerial Exception and required dismissal of the federal employment discrimination claims.
The title of this article was taken from the case reported above but may have originated with the religious organization in Conlon v InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 777 F3d 829, 832 (6th Cir. 2015), which the Court also relied upon. The lesson from these cases may be that the title should match the religious function in school documents and actual practice. Also, the case reported confirms that the handbook, the employment documents, and especially any morals clause, and there should be a morals clause, should track the title and the religious job function. Also, if the termination is factually based on conduct that cannot be tolerated in an elementary school but that occurred with no involvement of the school or its pupils, then a severance and release might be cheaper than litigating to prove a point.