SOCIAL WORK PROFESSORS ARE NOT MINISTERS – in some states

In determining whether an employee can bring an employment discrimination claim against a parachurch organization like a religious fine arts college, the fundamental question before a court is whether the employee is barred from such a claim by the Ministerial Exception doctrine. The Ministerial Exception doctrine at bed rock prevents a court from hearing an employment claim from “ministers” that represent in some way the faith during their employment. The Ministerial Exception was recognized by the United States Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v EEOC, 565 US 171 (2012).

In Deweese-Boyd v Gordon College, Slip Op. (Mass. 2020), the trial court granted summary judgment to the liberal arts college but the appellate court reversed. Plaintiff was a faculty member that sought promotion to full professor. The promotion was denied for the stated reason that Plaintiff did not publish sufficiently. Plaintiff claimed the promotion was denied because the Plaintiff was an outspoken critic of the school’s policies regarding homosexuality and sex outside of marriage. The Plaintiff was a teacher in the social work program. The liberal arts college in its organizational document was committed to both religious instruction and secular instruction. However, the secular instruction was to be “integrally Christian.” The school’s mission statement required undergraduate students “have a profession of Christian faith.” The Faculty Handbook stated the “foundations of Gordon’s education philosophy are Christian doctrine” the source of which was “God’s eternal Word.” In order to apply for work at the college, the Plaintiff had to sign a Memorandum of Understanding in which they agreed to “abide by” the “Statement of Life and Conduct at Gordon College.” The Social Work Department Handbook like the Student Handbook disclosed the program was “informed by a Christian worldview.” Plaintiff alleged she never held herself out as a minister, had no religious duties, did not promote “evangelical Christianity,” was not authorized to speak authoritatively as to church doctrine, and performed no religious functions. The appellate court granted judgment against the college on the Ministerial Exception. On remand, the college would not be allowed to present the Ministerial Exception as a defense. On remand, the trial court will be forced to decide whether the Plaintiff abided by Memorandum of Understanding in which Plaintiff agreed to “abide by” the “Statement of Life and Conduct at Gordon College.” There may be a “morals clause” lurking therein that Plaintiff has yet to address, but if so, the clause was not in the opinion. Also, on remand, the question of sufficiency of publication may yet be litigated.

To encompass a teacher of a secular subject in the religious nature of the religious school in some states will require an explicit undertaking by the teacher signed at hiring to refrain from advocacy or teaching contrary to religious doctrine espoused by the school, violation of which is a ground for termination. Such clauses should be drafted by counsel and not by ministers or academics.

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