The Ministerial Exception Doctrine arose from the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine of the First Amendment, in part, and from the statutory exception found in some federal employment laws that exempt religious organizations from the scope of such statutes. It has been refined most recently by the United States Supreme Court in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 591 US ___ (2020). The general import of the rule is that churches and parachurch organizations may select their own ministers without interference by regulators or courts. The question that then followed, as we have explored in many reports, is whether the employee was sufficiently “ministerial.”
In Simon v Saint Dominic Academy, Opinion, (D. NJ 2021), the federal trial court dismissed the case brought by Plaintiff, a “Chairperson of the Religious Department and Campus Minister.” Based on our prior reports that conclusion seemed obvious enough. What was less obvious was whether the Plaintiff’s claim, that the written employment contract was breached, could survive the Ministerial Exception. The federal trial court held that to enforce the written employment contract as to grounds for termination would be prohibited by the Ministerial Exception just as would federal statutory employment claims. While a compensation or similar covenant might have been enforceable under Neutral Principles of Law, the termination claim could not be.
While every case will turn on its own facts, financial contractual terms are most likely to be judged under Neutral Principles of Law and wrongful termination claims under the Ministerial Exception. Hopefully, for most church or parachurch employers, and their employees, this distinction is not too subtle to understand. Recognition of the existence of the distinction might forecast which claims to abandon or defend.