Do Employment Discrimination Laws Protect Religious Ministers?

Employment discrimination laws are meant to broadly protect all kinds of employees. But there are some constitutional limits. For example, courts have recognized that someone fired from his or her role as a “minister” by a religious organization cannot bring an employment discrimination claim due to First Amendment concerns.

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The U.S. Supreme Court confirmed this “ministerial exception” in a 2012 decision. The justices unanimously held that a teacher employed in a school operated by a Lutheran congregation in Michigan could not challenge her termination for “insubordination and disruptive behavior” in federal court. (The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission actually brought the claim on the teacher's behalf.) The teacher said she was fired due to a medical disability, in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The Supreme Court said that since the teacher “held herself out as a minister,” and carried out the functions of a religious leader, her discrimination claim was barred by the ministerial exception. In short, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., writing for the Court, said that under the First Amendment it was “impermissible for the government to contradict a church's determination of who can act as its ministers.” The First Amendment prohibits both the “establishment” of religion or any laws that prevent its “free exercise.”

More recently, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals here in New York applied the ministerial exception in dismissing a lawsuit brought by the former principal of a Roman Catholic school in Rockland County. The principal, who is female, sued the Archdiocese of New York for sex discrimination after her contract as a “lay principal” was not renewed. A trial court granted the Archdiocese's motion to dismiss.

The Second Circuit affirmed that dismissal. The court noted that under Chief Justice Roberts' 2012 opinion, there were four “considerations” a court must assess in deciding whether a particular employee is covered by the ministerial exception:

  • The employee's “formal title,” i.e. Was she actually called a “minister”?;
  • The “substance reflected” in the formal title;
  • The employee's “use” of the title; and
  • The “important religious functions” performed by the employee.

The Second Circuit relied primarily on this fourth consideration in holding that the principal was, in fact, a “minister.” Although she held the formal title of “lay principal,” which “does not connote a religious role,” the appeals court said a review of the plaintiff's job functions “makes clear that she served many religious functions to advance the School's Roman Catholic mission.” For example, as principal the plaintiff “led daily prayers for students,” oversaw the “selection of hymns” for the students’ Catholic masses, and “supervised teachers' integration of Catholic saints and religious values in their lessons and classrooms.”

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While the Second Circuit said the ex-principal's claims were absolutely barred by the Supreme Court's ministerial exception, the court rejected the Archdiocese's position that “all parochial-school principals should be presumed to be ministers with the meaning of the exception.” Such determinations still have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

It is also important to note the exception does not apply to non-ministerial employees of religious organizations. A Catholic school that engaged in illegal sex discrimination against, say, a maintenance worker could still be sued. To reiterate the Second Circuit's holding, many principals and teachers may fall outside the exception based on the exact nature of their duties.

The complexity of the law emphasizes the importance of working with a qualified New York employment attorney if you have been the victim of discrimination at the hands of any employer. Call the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar in New York City or Long Island to speak with an experienced workplace discrimination lawyer today.

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