The ongoing argument that church school teachers, staff, and administrators are not “ministers” and that employment decisions by churches regarding them are not shielded by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine or its subsidiary the Ministerial Exception is not merely a matter of opinion. It is, or should be, a matter of factual inquiry based on the record the parties have made. The church and school governing documents, the employment contracts, if any, and the employment handbooks generally will decide the issue because those documents generally existed prior to the dispute, were ratified by the employee upon employment, or ratified because the employee remained employed after amended documents were adopted.
In Zaleuke v Archdiocese of St. Louis, Memorandum and Order (ED Mo. ED, 2021) the federal trial court granted summary judgment to the church. The Plaintiff resigned from the position of elementary church school principal when Plaintiff learned her contract would not be renewed for a third year. The Plaintiff sued alleging sex discrimination. The trial court’s opinion recited the church governing documents, employment contract, and other documents in detail. For example, the employment application required Plaintiff to answer certain questions described as: “(1) “describe your belief in God and your relationship with Jesus Christ”; (2) “describe your relationship to and involvement in the Catholic Church in general and your parish in particular”; (3) “define the unique mission of Catholic schools”; (4) “describe … the elements of a school’s Catholic identity”; (5) “describe your background in religious education” and “[h]ow this contribute[s] to your work as a Principal/administrator”; and (6) “describe the role for [a r]eligious leader of the school community.”” The employment contract expressly stated the position was intended to further the mission of the church. A “mission statement” to which the employee was required to adhere was much like a secular morals clause. The position also required meetings with religious personnel of the church and ongoing religious education. The trial court held that the record demonstrated the Plaintiff’s position was required to perform “important religious functions,” “religious instruction,” church mission participation, and academic requirements directly related to “elucidating or teaching the tenets of the faith.”
Churches that run schools should grab this court opinion and make sure their own documents serve as well in documenting the true nature of the position. The goal is not merely the elimination of secular court employment case intrusion but obtaining the clear commitment of church school employees at every level.