Tag: Employee handbooks


Churches and church schools often adopt employment morals clauses.  Morals clauses rarely specify the immoral conduct prohibited because the owner or sponsor of the school is a church that has a generally known doctrinal or biblical stance regarding morality.  Termination based on alleged violation of a morals clause, especially in mainstream churches and their satellites like church schools, may not always shield the school or the church from liability claims based on employment discrimination statutes.

In Crisitello v St. Theresa School, Slip Op. (NJ App. 2020) (unpublished), the appellate court reversed the summary judgment of the trial court for the second time.  The trial court found that being a terminated unwed pregnant female was not actionable.  The church school had a morals clause that required the teachers and staff to adhere to the doctrines and morals of the Roman Catholic Church.  However, the employment handbook containing the morals clause did not in the clause expressly specify pre-marital sex as prohibited.  The plaintiff alleged the school’s termination decision was based only on the knowledge of the pregnancy and the teacher’s unwed status and was discriminatory because there was no inquiry into the premarital sexual actions of other employees, especially males.  The teacher was an art teacher and did not teach religious education, distinguishing the claim from those in Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru, 591 U. S. ___, (2020) and Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter & Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, 591 U.S. ___, (2020).  The Establishment Clause, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine, and the Ministerial Exception, were deemed inapplicable.

Of course, to suggest that the morals clause had to have greater specificity, such as a recital of the Ten Commandments or scripture citations, is itself an ecclesiastical determination.  The appellate court seems to have reasoned it is possible a college-educated person might go to work in a Roman Catholic church school and not know the Roman Catholic church has not yet endorsed as acceptable pre-marital sex.  While it may be that the teacher in the case reported did not have religious teaching duties, which might prevent application of the Ministerial Exception, it remains to be seen whether determining the scope of a morals clause might not entangle a court in ecclesiastical discussions.


Church governance documents, employee handbooks, and employment contracts (when used) are often cloned from commercial counterparts or internet search finds. Original draftsmanship is often by non-lawyers that include religious doctrines or language but does not necessarily achieve the desired interpretation. Forms obtained from sources knowledgeable in one jurisdiction may not be effective in another.

In Rehfield v Diocese of Joliet, Slip Op. (ILL App. 2019), the church school principal was relieved of duty but her contracts were paid out. Nevertheless, the Plaintiff sued alleging retaliatory discharge and violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act. The case was dismissed because the trial court held the principal’s job description clearly made her position sufficiently ecclesiastical to invoke the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The job description required “a commitment to nurturing the [denominational] Identity of the school.” The job description also included, in pertinent part:

“providing an atmosphere in the school which is identifiably [denominational];

“developing and participating in ongoing programs to insure religious and professional growth of the staff;

“establishing an instructional program which includes religious education to meet the needs of students; [and]

“assisting teachers in achieving the goals of [denominational] education through supervision and classroom visitation.”

Church schools, churches, and parachurch organizations should review their employment agreements, handbooks and corporate bylaws annually to assure that their job descriptions are consistent with mission of the organization as well as the operational needs that may be similar to secular entities. Legal counsel should usually be engaged to assist. Overstatement of religious identity is not necessary and may, indeed, harm credibility in a dispute. After all, a janitorial employee may not have religious duties. Nevertheless, religious identity should be clearly stated in the job description of every professional employee.