Category: church employment


Sometimes you cannot get the lyrics out of your head:

Gimme a head with hair
Long, beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming
Streaming, flaxen, waxen

Give me down to there (Hair!)
Shoulder length or longer hair (Hair!)
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy daddy

Hair (Hair! Hair! Hair! Hair! Hair! Hair!)
Grow it, show it
Long as I can grow it
My hair

I let it fly in the breeze
And get caught in the trees
Give a home for the fleas in my hair
A home for fleas
A hive for the buzzin’ bees (buzzin’ beeeeeeeesssss)
A nest for birds
There ain’t no words
For the beauty, the splendor, the wonder
Of my…

Hair (Hair! Hair! Hair! Hair! Hair! Hair!)
Grow it, show it
Long as I can grow it
My hair

Hair lyrics © Emi U Catalog Inc., Channel H Productions, 1969, sung by the Cowsills (the “bubblegum pop” band of the 1960s that may have inspired the television show The Partridge Family).

In Markowski v BYU, Memorandum Decision and Order Granting Summary Judgment (D. Utah, 2022), the Plaintiff was employed as a trainer of full-time missionaries.  Her specialty was use of social media.  The Defendant university’s dress code applied to employees and probably students.  The Plaintiff cut her hair short.  Six weeks later, Plaintiff was informed her hair cut was “not feminine enough” and “was too masculine.”  There was a complaint about her eyebrows as well.  Although Plaintiff indicated she would grow her hair out, she was fired.  To qualify for her position, the Plaintiff had completed her own eighteen-month missionary assignment and the training required for the mission.  She also had other required training.  Her job required her to teach church doctrine using the parent church’s social media systems.  Plaintiff claimed discrimination on the basis of sex because male employees were allowed to bleach their hair blond, disparate treatment, and “failing to fulfill traditional sex stereotypes.”  The federal trial court granted summary judgment to the Defendant.  The court held that Plaintiff’s position had a “vital role in advancing the religious mission” of the Defendant and the position was “explicitly religious in nature.”  Thus, the Ministerial Exception barred the claim.  The court relied upon Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v EEOC, 565 US 171 (2012).  The court held the position performed “vital religious duties” and was barred.  For this aspect of the Ministerial Exception inquiry the court relied on Our Lady of Guadalupe School v Morrissey-Berru, 140 S.Ct. 2049 (2020).

Explicit dress codes can be enforced on ministerial staff and nearly all employees.  Most secular businesses and government offices can do so, too, so this should come as no surprise to even new and young employees.  Most churches in the US appear to have abandoned all dress codes, at least during worship services, although less so for professional clergy in some denominations and traditions, but this should not mislead anyone to think that they are unenforceable in the denomination and or tradition that still recognizes the necessity of dress codes.  The case reminded this author of a more innocent time when changing hair styles were the subject of controversy and song lyrics.


How long does a denomination or local church have to investigate sexual misconduct allegations against personnel?  Most governing documents that address the question, and most are actually altogether silent or do not differentiate such allegations from other matters of discipline, do not set a time limit on investigations or discipline.  Stated another way, must the duration of such an investigation be “reasonable?”

In Taylor v Evangelical Covenant Church, 2022 IL App (1st) 210524, Slip Op., the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case with prejudice was affirmed.  The Plaintiff was suspended by the denomination from pastoral duties in 2017 pending investigation of a sexual misconduct claim alleged to have arisen in the 1970s.  The defendant denomination licensed pastors and had the authority to suspend them.  The defendant denomination investigated during 2017 – 2018 and reinstated Plaintiff’s licensure but did not reinstall him in another local church as pastor by the time suit was filed in 2020.  In the interim the local church that previously employed Plaintiff hired a replacement.  The Plaintiff alleged the denomination violated its governing documents by “keeping Plaintiff in a suspended status for an unreasonably lengthy period.”  The appellate court determined that the substance of Plaintiff’s pled claims related to “internal matters of church governance and discipline” including the claim about undue or unjust delay.  Therefore, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine precluded court review.

The governing documents need not set time limits on investigations, discipline, or any other matter of internal church governance.  Indeed, it is probably better that they do not.  The actual procedures the denomination used on the fifty year old sexual misconduct allegation were not set forth in the opinion.  Nor was there any report of whether the investigation found the allegations credible.  The reinstatement of the licensure of the Plaintiff seemed to indicate the allegations were not found credible.  That the Plaintiff had not be reinstalled as a church pastor may or may not indicate anything other than supply and demand given the lack of specifics in the opinion.


Repeatedly in these reports we have seen that defamation claims are so difficult and expensive to pursue that they are only a marginal church litigation threat.  Indeed, in these reports we have characterized defamation law as a fortress that few if any claims will ever breach.  Nevertheless, for reasons political and economic, defamation claims are sometimes filed, announced to the public and then forgotten, often without being served on the opponent.

In de Laire v Voris, Order (D. NH. 2021), the United States District Court for New Hampshire was the scene of a defamation claim brought by a bishop against an internet news media company known as the Church Militant (  The bishop apparently imposed “sanctions” on a parachurch organization during a doctrinal dispute.  The Church Militant not only reported on the sanctions dispute, but reported the bishop was the subject of complaints about the bishop’s canonical competence and other matters.  In response to the bishop’s defamation claims, the Church Militant issued a subpoena to the diocese, a non-party to the case, for documents.  The non-party diocese objected to the requests in the subpoena.  The trial court ultimately refused to enforce the subpoena because negotiations between the diocese and the Church Militant left the requests unclear to the Court.  Nevertheless, the federal trial court noted that that defamation claims in general, and therefore a related subpoena, do not automatically require inquiry into ecclesiastical matters.  Therefore, the objection of the diocese invoking the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine of the First Amendment was inapplicable and in order to reassert it the Court instructed the parties to specify its applicability to the particular documents sought.

It is hard to understand why any church leader would think that a defamation lawsuit was worthwhile when weighed against unintended consequences like court discovery.  Indeed, in the reported case, the Court assumed in its Order that the diocese and the Church Militant through counsel would negotiate further on the discovery requests made by subpoena.  While “revelations” in discovery seem unlikely, the cost of responding is not an expense to which most churches are accustomed.  Litigation also seems to be way a uniquely good way to perpetuate adverse news media coverage of an issue that might otherwise be ignored by the public in short order.


Many priests, pastors and ministers have felt they were trapped in a hostile workplace.  Many non-church employees that deal with the public have had the same experience.  For both the supervisory personnel to whom they answer are rarely the source.  Non-church employers may have a duty to intervene between the public and the employee if the conduct of the public is “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.”  Harris v Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 US 17, 21 (1993).  Whether the rule would apply to a minister abused by a church member remains to be decided.

In Middleton v United Church of Christ Board, Slip Op. (6th Cir. 2021) the Plaintiff was an employee of the denomination and an ordained minister.  The Plaintiff was responsible for planning youth events.  The Plaintiff alleged the work environment was rendered toxic by co-workers, supervisors and one or more church donors.  The trial court dismissed the case.  The United States Court of Appeal for the 6th Circuit affirmed.  The Plaintiff’s allegations of abuse that rendered the work environment hostile was an event in 2010, an event in 2013, an event in 2014 and retaliation because Plaintiff complained to the human relations office.  The Plaintiff was demoted in 2015 and placed under the supervision of a person of a different race.  The Plaintiff was demoted a second time later in 2015 and placed in a temporary position scheduled to end the following year.  Still later in 2015, Plaintiff’s two-month sabbatical was abruptly ended after only two weeks.  Plaintiff also claimed a promotion was denied and given to a person of a different race instead.  The Court of Appeals concluded the church could not be required to prove its employment decisions were not pre-textual.  The Court held such an inquiry would require intrusion into church ministerial employment decisions motivated by religious belief and practice.  Further, the Court of Appeals held the alleged hostile actions, however unprofessional they may have been if true, fell short of being sufficiently severe to plausibly plead a hostile work environment claim.  The denomination likewise had no duty to intervene if the alleged hostile actions did not reach the level of a hostile work environment.

The reported case set the rule for the states in the 6th Circuit that hostile work environment claims for ministers are not available.  In that ruling, the 6th Circuit joined every other circuit.  The additional holding that the allegations of the Plaintiff alone were not enough to make out a hostile work environment claim are also instructive.  Non-clergy employees may still, in some cases, be able to make a hostile work environment claim.  However, the alleged abuse must rise to the level of altering the conditions of the claimant’s employment and create an abusive working environment.  This will likely require allegations of pervasive, prolonged and seriously abusive behavior to be followed by proof of same.