THERE IS NO MIDDLE

The United States Supreme Court decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020) (Our Lady of Guadalupe), left open the possibility that a Christian parachurch organization might have employment relationships that are not subject to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine or the Ministerial Exception.  A determination that such employment relationships exist in a parachurch organization brings, as to that particular employee, the applicability of state and possibly federal employment laws.

In DeWeese-Boyd v Gordon College, Slip Op. (Mass. 2021), the non-denominational Christian fine arts college failed to promote the Plaintiff to the academic rank of full Professor.  The Plaintiff sued and alleged gender discrimination and retaliation for “vocal opposition to Gordon’s policies and practices regarding individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (or questioning), and others (LGBTQ+ persons)…”  The appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the Defendant was a religious institution even though it was not part of a denomination.  But, the Court struggled with “the most difficult issue for us is how to evaluate her responsibility to integrate her Christian faith into her teaching and scholarship as a professor of social work.”  The Court held that the “duty to integrate her teaching and Christian faith” imposed on her by her employer did not make her sufficiently ministerial to trigger the Ministerial Exception and held that she could pursue a state law claim for discrimination and retaliation.  The Court was silent on how the trial court might determine whether the “integration” duty and the employer’s evaluation of Plaintiff’s compliance was subject to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.

Because the Plaintiff’s claim was about a promotion, which might have been denied for any number of reasons and only the development of a trial record might make identification of the actual reasons definite, resolution might be determined by economics rather than any sort of righteous indignation.  After all, Plaintiff was not fired so Ecclesiastical doctrine or beliefs might or might not have weighed much.  Donors might not have been influenced either way.  But, being neither beast nor foul, being as much secular as religious, might mean that in reality the Defendant was not sufficiently ecclesiastical to make its faculty ministerial.  Fully ecclesiastical parachurch organizations typically do not seek accommodation with secular beliefs unless those secular beliefs are no long secular or no longer verboten.

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