The Ministerial Exception, generally a rule that prohibits court review of religious organization employment decisions, would seem simple enough. But, lawsuits to survive must escape its pull. Generally, the former employee plaintiff will contend they are not a minister. This claim is often made in the face of common sense when even slight common sense would demand the person must have been a type of minister. Sometimes religious organizations muddy the water by claiming every employee is a minister, confusing their doctrinal view that every member is a minister even though some people are paid to do non-ministry work because no one else is called to donate the service.
In Yin v Columbia International University, Slip Op. (D SC 2018), the Plaintiff was terminated due to a financial downturn. The Plaintiff was otherwise not criticized for her service as a professor. The Plaintiff sued claiming violation of federal employment laws. The Defendant was a religious school and its primary mission was training ministers. As a faculty member, the Plaintiff signed an undertaking to be responsible for certain religious duties. The Plaintiff, for example, started classes with prayer and the Plaintiff led chapel services. But, the Plaintiff alleged the Plaintiff’s faculty position was “academic” and not religious. The Plaintiff alleged the job title was secular and not religious. Based on the substance of the Plaintiff’s job, including religious duties and the Plaintiff’s obligation to prepare students for ministry, the Court held the case was “extremely close” but granted summary judgment on the Ministerial Exception and dismissed the case with prejudice.
Religious organizations defending employment cases should not do so complacently even if the outcome seems predestined. The Ministerial Exception is typically classified as an affirmative defense, and affirmative defenses often present a factual question from the perspective of the Court hearing the facts for the first time even if from the perspective of the religious organization everything seems obvious. The religious organization’s governing documents, employment manuals, and employee specific documentation should be organized and presented at the earliest opportunity. Otherwise, the lawsuit might escape from the tidal forces of the Ministerial Exception and keep the case alive through many thousands of dollars in legal fees.
We reported in July 2017 and September 2017 on Winkler v Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc., Slip Op. (Mich. 2017), an opinion of the Supreme Court of Michigan that was revised. Our posts were entitled: The Finger in the Dike and The Leak in the Dike, respectively. The Supreme Court revised its own prior pronouncements that the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine was jurisdictional and indicated it was not jurisdictional. If a dispute could be decided on neutral principles that did not require an inquiry into ecclesiastical decisions, then the dispute could be resolved by a Michigan court according to the Michigan high court. As we noted when we summarized the decision, the smaller and weaker the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine is defined the more likely it becomes that a court, even a well-meaning one, will simply ignore ecclesiastical sensibilities. Another risk is that churches will be required to comply with laws intended to govern for-profit businesses and local governmental subdivisions, or the rules applicable to public schools, even though churches and church schools have a more fragile financial base.
In Rubinstein v Temple Israel, Slip Op., (Mich. App. 2018), the trial court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. The religious school’s rule that required vaccinations and allowed exemptions only for medical reasons was narrower than state law that also allowed exemption on religious grounds. The trial court reasoned that an inquiry into whether the religious school’s determination that its students would not have religious grounds for refusing vaccinations was ecclesiastical and for that reason the trial court would not have jurisdiction to hear the case. The intermediate appellate court in Michigan, relying on the Michigan Supreme Court decision in Winkler, reversed the trial court because the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine was an affirmative defense and not jurisdictional. In other words, a trial court might determine after discovery, in a summary judgment proceeding or a trial, that neutral principles could not decide the dispute but that the trial court would have jurisdiction to make that determination. Likewise, the trial court could rule that the dispute was not ecclesiastical.
The trial court on remand after the parties spend much more on litigation could hold the religious school cannot determine the religious preferences it will tolerate among its students. The trial court could reason that because a “neutral principle,” a state statute designed to preserve religious choice regarding vaccinations required by public schools, could resolve the dispute it need not make an ecclesiastical inquiry. Of course, one would think that under the First Amendment a religious school need not accommodate religious beliefs that vary from its own, whatever they are, but Michigan courts appear to want to be the final arbiter of those religious disputes.
In June 2017 we reported the decision of the trial court to grant summary judgment in Grussgott v Milwaukee Jewish Day School, Inc., Order, (ED Wisc. 2017). The United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit has affirmed. In Grussgott v Milwaukee Jewish Day School, Inc., Slip Op. (7th Cir. 2018), the appellate court held as have others that there is no precise “formula” or set of elements that determine whether an employee is sufficiently “ministerial” to trigger the Ministerial Exception. The Plaintiff was an elementary school teacher whose job was not to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, but rather Hebrew. The Plaintiff taught Hebrew from an integrated curriculum which included religious instruction as a part of the language instruction (or language as part of the religious instruction). Also, the Plaintiff admitted teaching about Jewish Holidays, weekly Torah Readings, and participated even if she did not teach other religious rites. It was not dispositive that Plaintiff claimed she only taught historical and cultural facts and not religion. The school documented that it was intended that Plaintiff’s role contribute to the “school’s Jewish mission.”
Rather than adopt a formulaic test or set of elements, the 7th Circuit adopted what it called the “totality of circumstances” test. Of course, the totality would include many elements. Thus, in this case, Plaintiff’s role as a teacher of the faith to the next generation “outweighed” other considerations.
The lesson for church schools and para-church organizations generally is to link the job with the religious mission. This should be done in employee handbooks, policy manuals, and governing documents. It would not hurt if the new employee signed an acknowledgment of the religious mission of the new employer and also acknowledged the employee’s important role in that mission. It might not be especially specific but it would make ignorance of the mission and the expectation of participation in the mission an untenable claim.
Para-church organizations, like a school owned by a church, that take federal funds may not be permitted as a condition of receiving the federal funds to post religious materials, offer religious education, or directly associate with clergy and church staff. We have posted about such cases before. Another disadvantage to taking federal money is that such a school will likely have employees that are considered secular and not religious (their personal beliefs or memberships notwithstanding). As a result, there might be no First Amendment shield for employment claims.
In Mosaic United Methodist Church v Maureen Hammond, et al., Slip Op. (Ky. App., 2018), the director of the school for twenty years did not recover from the passing of her husband allegedly resulting in absences and other signs of depression. Eventually, after a student was injured, she was terminated. Her termination was allegedly because of dereliction leading to safety concerns. The Plaintiff, however, claimed the reason for termination was pretextual and brought an employment disability discrimination suit. Her supervisor was the pastor of the church. A jury entered a verdict in her favor and the court entered a judgment for attorney fees, too. The school was operated under a separate policy and procedure manual. The alleged absences and other failures were not documented and did not result in disciplinary review prior to termination. The church tried to raise an ecclesiastical abstention doctrine defense but it initially did so in a one sentence motion and did not raise the issue again until two and a half years of discovery was completed.
Churches that found para-church organizations like schools that evolve into federal funding dependents should be transferred to another non-profit corporation or separately incorporated. Another possibility might be to form a trust to own the school and merely allow the church or its leadership to serve as trustee. An out right sale of the school to another entity on marginally favorable terms might be advisable. At the least, the pastor should not be supervisor; pastors are spiritual leaders and not secular employers by training or inclination. The church board might fill the role, but the other alternatives are better. Otherwise, the church will have the exposure of a secular non-church employer and possibly an invitee of children, but will have the income stream of a church, which is not usually enough to cover such exposures. Insurance when it is available will be necessary. However, although a capacity crunch is only a distant memory, affordable insurance is not always available. If a para-church organization must be operated as a separate “secular” entity, maybe it should be one.