Tag: ministerial exception


Typically, church management employees consist of clergy and clerical staff.  Some churches are large enough to employ other additional managers and staff.  Generally, these positions are financial management positions, child day care managers and other types of positions.  The church staff accountant, the child day care director, and the facility manager are usually not strictly ministerial.  Nevertheless, they may have ministerial duties.  Those duties may or may not keep them inside the frontiers of the Ministerial Exception to federal or state employment laws and leave the church immune.

In Congregation B’Nai Zion of El Paso, slip op. (Tex. Civ. App. 2022), the synagogue employed an “executive director” but terminated her three years later.  The terminated executive director alleged she was not a minister.  The church alleged her duties included ministerial matters.  In order to resolve the factual conflict, the trial court held the plea to the jurisdiction of the court in abeyance and ordered discovery on the merits.  The appellate court held a jurisdictional appellate ruling was premature because the trial court had not ruled on jurisdiction.  Thus, the appellate court remanded the case to the trial court to permit limited discovery on the jurisdictional issue.  Upon termination of the executive director, the church leadership issued a letter explaining the termination to the “voting members” but never mentioning the former employee by name.  The terminated person alleged the letter was defamatory because the letter reported the implementation of a new financial audit requirement.  The church alleged the letter was required to achieve financial transparency as required by governing documents.

We must await further rulings or developments regarding whether an “executive director” or “office manager” (as the former employee explained the duties of the position) is sufficiently ministerial to trigger the Ministerial Exception.  Also, whether the report of events to the “voting membership” in a letter was defamatory has yet to be decided.  The real lesson of the reported case is that interlocutory appellate review to extinguish expensive full-blown discovery in a case the court will likely hold is barred by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine or the Ministerial Exception must not be premature.  There must be sufficient record, i.e., evidentiary materials, so that the court can easily see there are prohibited ecclesiastical inquiries required to decide the issues.  The duties of an “executive director” or “office manager” typically will be sufficiently ministerial to trigger the Ministerial Exception because such an employee operates at the clergy level to operate the infrastructure of the church.  Intertwined with church governance issues such an employee will be typically immersed in confidential ministerial decision making even if they are not leading worship services.  Such an employee may decide which minister will lead at least on a given day.


In a large church, the music ministry might be led by a “minister of music.”  Such a leader might have a staff that includes choir directors tasked with creating and leading certain types of choirs for various events and services.  In some churches, the “choir director” may still have that title but in actuality be the minister of music, or the minister of music in certain situations.  In all churches, it is unlikely to find a choir director without significant duties in worship services as well as related events.

In Martin v SS Columbia Brigid Catholic Church, Order on Motions to Dismiss (WD NY 2022), the federal trial court dismissed the federal employment law and state law case of a choir director.  The church moved for dismissal based on the Ministerial Exception to federal employment laws and state law claims.  The Plaintiff alleged the title “choir director” was not a ministerial position.  However, the Plaintiff acknowledged she would be “perceived as a religious leader” because her duties encompassed a “significant religious dimension” that appeared to be her “primary function.”

This Court did not review employee handbooks or any contractual documents because the case was at the pleading stage at which a motion to dismiss became the vehicle for dismissal.  The Court’s opinion was based solely on the allegations in the complaint filed by the Plaintiff which the Court had to treat as true as long as the allegations were plausible.


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.


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.