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.
In states that have adopted the Neutral Principles Doctrine in non-religious issue church disputes employment contracts with non-clergy are enforceable in court. A church can contractually impair or limit the First Amendment Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception Doctrine. The financial aspect of the contract will typically not be deemed ecclesiastical even if reinstatement as a remedy is not available under these Doctrines. Courts will be reluctant to try to force reinstatement on a religious organization even for non-clergy and prefer a financial remedy. But, the remedy could be technically available.
In Saint Augustine School v Cropper, Slip Op. (KY 2017), the very brief opinion of the state supreme court did not explain why the elementary school “lay administrator” was in fact “lay.” The “lay administrator” was rehired under a written contract but then shortly after that terminated in what the court seemed to describe as a reduction in force required by a financial downturn at the school or the church. The opinion was silent as to any other reason for termination. The lower court granted summary judgment to the church based on the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The Ministerial Exception Doctrine was not asserted by the church. Thus, the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the lower court on neutral principles grounds.
Written employment contracts are two edged swords. Churches should use them as do businesses to reduce their exposures. But, doing it badly or autonomically usually leads to unintended consequences. Most states in the west have adopted the “at will” employment doctrine. It applies when there is no written or implied contract. State law regarding “at will” employment doctrine should be considered in the evaluation of the need for and contents of an employment contract. Written employment contracts should have a limited duration, typically short, and expressly state renewal is not automatic even if employment continues beyond expiration. There are many other considerations.
It seems accepted that churches are shielded by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and most cases against them will simply be dismissed. The outer edge of the doctrine is still uncertain at times. The para-church organization must be proven to be religious in purpose and operation to be shielded by the Doctrine.
In the opinion styled In Re Episcopal the Episcopal School of Dallas, Inc., Slip Op. (Tex. App. 5th, 2017), the Plaintiff was a student. The Plaintiff allegedly left campus during lunch without permission, parked in front of a residence and smoked Marijuana, denied it even though the other student involved confessed, refused to allow a search of his car, substituted another student’s sample for his urine for a drug test, and failed a drug test once the right urine was tested. The student was dismissed from the school. The trial court refused to dismiss the case. The Plaintiff argued to the trial court that the school was not owned or operated by a church and that the dispute was governed by the admissions contract between the school and the student thus making the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine inapplicable. The Court of Appeals, however, examined the school’s articles of incorporation, composition of its governing board, worship service schedule, faculty, and determined there was “only one reasonable conclusion.”
The Court of Appeals held that the school was a “religious school” or a “faith based institution.” The school had on the faculty Episcopal priests that led the student body in daily worship. The Bishop of the Diocese sometimes officiated. There was mandatory religious instruction. The student’s claims derived “solely from the calculus of the school’s internal policies and management of its internal affairs.” The school’s lack of a formal affiliation with a church or denomination did not make inapplicable the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The “secular contract approach” urged by the student “did not apply when the claimed breach of contract arises from an enrollment agreement at a faith based institution.” That the dispute was not in all respects about religious doctrine was not the test. Enough of the dispute was entangled in religious considerations to require application of the Doctrine.
In order to determine if federal employment discrimination statutes apply to the employee of a para-church organization, a court will look to the descriptions of the employment both sides tender into evidence. On a Motion to Dismiss at the beginning of a case, this may be a very limited inquiry. Typically, motions to dismiss look only to the Plaintiff’s allegations in the Complaint or Petition and to any documents attached. On a Motion for Summary Judgment filed after discovery the range of admissible facts and exhibits may be quite broader.
In Lishu Yin v Columbia International University, Order and Opinion, (D. SC – Columbia, 2017), the Plaintiff attached an employment contract to the Complaint and made certain allegations about her employment role. The Court overruled the Motion to Dismiss. The Court determined that the description of the Plaintiff’s job in the employment contract did not establish that Plaintiff was a minister such that the case barred pursuant to the First Amendment’s Ministerial Exception. The employment contract described the job as “associate professor” and “faculty of the ministry.” The Plaintiff self-described her role as a full time resident faculty member in the “Masters of Teaching English as a Foreign Language” program. The Court held that these descriptions were not sufficient to persuade that Plaintiff was a “minister” triggering the Ministerial Exception.
The employment handbook of the institution and the employment contract cannot alone trigger the Ministerial Exception if they do not describe the ministry the jobholder is to perform. Further, the description should reflect the age or maturity level of the students, not simply be overly general boilerplate, and the handbook and contract should dovetail by referring to each other’s latest version, even if the version is not stated.