While it might seem on its face that in the present state of the law there is no longer real doubt that the “worship pastor,” typically the music minister, has ecclesiastical duties even if exposition from a pulpit is not among them, see, Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v Morrissey-Berru, 140 S.Ct. 2049, 2055 (2020), some questions still arise.  For example, can a court decide at the beginning of the case with nothing but the Complaint, the first pleading, in the record that the job duties are sufficiently ministerial to invoke the Ministerial Exception of federal discrimination statutes like Title VII?

In Chris v Kang, Opinion & Order (D. Oregon, 2022), the federal trial court dismissed the case.  The Plaintiff alleged he was not hired as “worship pastor” because he was not a “native English speaker” and “not familiar with American culture.”  The Court held the claim was barred by the Ministerial Exception even though the Plaintiff’s Complaint was the only thing before the Court.  The Plaintiff also asserted that Oregon state law did not yet recognize the Ministerial Exception.  The federal court held that the Ministerial Exception was also derived from the First Amendment and as a constitutional level protection barred the state tort claim, too.

The seemingly secular job qualifications, “native English speaker” and “familiar with American culture,” if they were required by the hiring church in the reported case, did not disqualify the hiring decision about a pastor or minister from protection by the First Amendment.  The hiring church should not have leaked any requirements beyond their written job description.  The hiring church should not have communicated to an unsuccessful applicant any reason for the decision not to hire.


Whether a local church can break away (“disaffiliate” in some groups) from a denomination, and whether the local church has followed the procedure to do so to conclusion, are usually very difficult inquiries.  Because the determination of whether there is an ability to break away, and whether it has been done, usually determine who owns the local church property some courts are tempted to decide these issues as if they were amenable to review under Neutral Principles of Law.  Others refuse to decide the issues under the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.

In Blue v Church of God Sanctified, Inc., Slip Op. (Tenn. App. 2022), the trial court refused to determine whether the local church “disaffiliated” by holding the issue was shrouded in the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.  Nevertheless, because the denomination determined that the local church held the church property in trust for the denomination, the trial court held that decision was also shrouded in the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.  The Tennessee Court of Appeals in its lengthy and detailed opinion affirmed the trial court.  While the appellate court authorized trial courts to review all governance and property ownership documents, the decision of the denomination that the local church property was held in trust for the denomination was ecclesiastical if it was enshrined in denominational governance documents.  That was so regardless of whether or not the local church property deed contained a “trust clause” making the local church owner a trustee for the denomination.

Courts were sometimes hung up on the boundary between the ecclesiastical and secular property ownership.  Such courts can elevate the presence or absence of language in deeds above denominational governance documents, or even local church governance documents.  The approach in the reported case avoids blurring the ecclesiastical boundary by elevating the denominational governance documents and relying on other documents only in the event of silence or ambiguity in the denominational governance documents.


Federal and state anti-discrimination statutes outlawed termination based on race, disability, gender and other protected class circumstances.  Denominations and churches were exempted in these statutes, generally, from compliance.  Further, the First Amendment doctrines, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and Church Autonomy Doctrine, set boundaries on judicial inquiry that have also been applied in employment disputes.  The “at will” doctrine prevalent in most states makes it possible for the employer to terminate or the employee to terminate without notice or cause, and without repercussion.  Employment contracts need not eviscerate the “at will” doctrine.  Such contracts, along with employee handbooks and other documents are important employment dispute documents.

In Butler v St Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Academy, Memorandum & Order (ED NY 2022), the federal trial granted summary judgment to the church on federal employment law claims.  The Plaintiff was hired immediately before the start of the school year to teach art literature and social studies at a church school.  The Plaintiff represented he attended Catholic schools and had a desire to integrate modern teaching methods with the “Catholic faith.”  Plaintiff attended new teacher orientation and after a day of it sent an email to the Principal expressing concern over whether he was likely to be “accepted” because of his sexual orientation and because he expected someday to enter a same sex marriage.  The Plaintiff was terminated before the commencement of classes.  The job listing required applicants “committed to the mission of Catholic education.”  The employment contract required compliance with a “morality clause” and the employee handbook explicitly warned of termination for violation of the morals clause.  Both clauses explicitly were based on Catholic doctrine.  The federal trial court held the Ministerial Exception applied because the employment contract and handbook required integration of religious teaching and practice into classroom presentations, relying on Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, 565 US 171, 188 (2012) and Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v Morrissey-Berru, 140 SCt 2049, 2055 (2020).  The federal trial court held that even if the Ministerial Exception was inapplicable, the Church Autonomy Doctrine foreclosed inquiry into whether the reason given for termination, violation of the morals clauses, was pre-textual because it would require inquiry into the plausibility of the “asserted religious justifications.” While denominations and churches may someday revisit their doctrines regarding some of the issues reported above, and some may have already, the First Amendment prohibits imposition of involuntary reviews by courts and legislatures.  To further shield churches, parachurch organizations and church schools, employment contracts, employee handbooks, and job listings should explicitly describe the religious nature of the employment, the religious duties expected of the employee, and imposition of morals clauses generally consistent with church doctrine.  Leave no doubt.  Follow through.


In our reports we often mention the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.  The Doctrine is a subset of the protections afforded by the First Amendment.  Essentially, the Doctrine enforces the First Amendment’s prohibition of “law respecting an establishment of religion.”  One of the other shorthand expressions of the Doctrine not used as much is the “Church Autonomy Doctrine” (“CAD”).  CAD usually arises in cases involving hierarchical churches that internally adjudicate their own internal disputes.  Once a hierarchical church has through its own process decided a dispute involving its own members, its own property, and its own personnel, CAD prevents the dispute from being heard in a secular court.

In Catholic Diocese of Jackson v De Lange, Slip Op. (Miss., En Banc, 2022), the state trial court refused to dismiss the case holding the state law employment termination claims of the Plaintiff could be decided by application of secular legal principles.  The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed and dismissed the case.  The Plaintiff was the Chief Financial Officer of the diocese.  The position was enshrined in the formal Canon Law of the denomination.  Termination prior to the end of a five-year term had to be based only on “grave cause.”  The Plaintiff appealed his termination through the hierarchical system, was placed on administrative leave, but his termination was ultimately implemented.  Plaintiff alleged in court the termination was wrongful because the reasons for termination were false, defamatory, and did not constitute “grave cause” as required by Canon Law.  The appellate court held that to determine whether the reasons for termination were sufficient “grave causes” would require inquiry into the church doctrine that defined “grave causes” in Canon Law.  Such an inquiry would violate the Autonomy Doctrine, the court held.

The Ministerial Exception was not an issue in the reported case because the wrongful termination claim was not based on federal or state anti-discrimination laws.  Also, whether a Chief Financial Officer would be considered a “minister” was not a question reached.  Thus, the case reported was narrowly focused on the scope of church autonomy in employment matters.  In most states, churches will preserve their autonomy in employment matters by documenting carefully that all church employment is “at will” and avoiding employment contracts that might be used to thwart the At Will Doctrine.