The ongoing tension between federal civil rights employment statutes, the Ministerial Exception and the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine has not ended even while greatly reduced due to recent United States Supreme Court decisions.  “The ministerial exception bars adjudicating employment disputes “involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.””  Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049, 2060 (2020); Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 US 171, 194-95 (2012).

In Trotter v United Lutheran Seminary, Memorandum Opinion (E. D. Penn. 2021), the federal trial court overruled motions for summary judgment (which is probably the last step before trial in the case).  The Plaintiffs alleged they were victims of retaliation and hostile work environment discrimination.  The Plaintiffs held positions titled:  Vice President for Advancement and Vice President for Student Vocation and Formation.  The trial court held that on the facts presented the Plaintiffs did not teach religion or otherwise carry out the duties of ministers.  One of the Plaintiffs was, indeed, an ordained minister.  The trial court held that ordination in isolation did not trigger the Ministerial Exception.

Parachurch officers may perform duties sufficiently secular, and not participate in duties that are sufficiently or inherently ministerial, that federal civil rights employment claims remain viable.  The record that can be presented to a court may determine the sufficiency of either.  Such a record must be carefully developed.  Development of such a record should begin earlier than at the time of a claim or lawsuit.

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