LITIGATING INCLUSIVITY

Efforts to diversity church membership range from specialized outreach programs to development of professionally staffed inclusivity positions. Typically, the latter is limited to the denominational level because only the largest local churches have the resources for permanent staff positions.

In Worford v Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, Memorandum Opinion (ED Va. 2019), the Director of Inclusivity was terminated. She sued alleging race discrimination and retaliation. The trial court overruled the motion to dismiss submitted by the denomination. The denomination alleged that in order to decide the case the court would be forced to delve into church governance in contravention of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. But, the opinion did not cite or quote any governance documents. At the motion to dismiss stage, which is in the early pleading stage of a case, the trial court determined that the employment issues raised would not require interpretation of religious doctrine or decision-making. Also, the trial court held that the record was insufficient for the trial court to determine whether the Director of Inclusivity was by title, substance of the title, the employee’s use of the title, or the functions performed ministerial. Thus, the trial court deferred a ruling on whether the Ministerial Exception barred further proceedings until the conclusion of discovery and development of a more complete record. The Plaintiff denied that as Director of Inclusivity there was any requirement to lead a congregation, teach religious doctrine and that the position was solely an administrative logistical position.

In such cases, the church or denomination should submit to the court written employment agreements, employment rules and procedures handbooks, and signed acknowledgements containing admissions of the religious nature of the staff position. Of course, before any new staff position is created or anyone hired, such documents should be amended to explicate the religious nature of the position. Such terms as “evangelism” and “evangelist” were the titles of the original Directors of Inclusivity. Indeed, churches and denominations should engage counsel to assist with drafting such documents. The purpose of such documents in the secular world is the same as in the religious, to protect the employer and place the employee on notice.

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