The Ministerial Exception Part III

In my previous blogs, I explained the basics of this judicially-created doctrine, and argued that the ministerial exception can’t really be justified by either the Free Exercise or the Establishment Clause. The main Establishment Clause justification for the ministerial exception is the fear that in adjudicating discrimination claims, courts will become entangled with theological questions or endorse one religious vision over another. In this last post, I want to argue that application of the ministerial exception can entangle a court in religious doctrine more than application of anti-discrimination law.

For the ministerial exception to apply, the plaintiff in a discrimination suit must be a “ministerial” employee. Who counts as a ministerial employee? That is the question before the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC: is a teacher at a religious school who mostly teaches secular subjects but also leads students in prayer and teaches a religion class a ministerial employee? Courts do not simply defer to a religious organization’s characterization of a position, as it could insist that all its employees were ministers. Instead, courts have taken a functional approach, looking at the main duties of the employee, and essentially asking whether plaintiff’s job “is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church.”

In order to decide whether a position is “important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church,” however, a court might have to delve into the religious beliefs of a particular religion. In ruling that a church’s music director was a minister, for example, the Fourth Circuit analyzed the religious significance of music. The plaintiff argued that she was not a ministerial employee because she merely taught people to sing and perform music. The court disagreed, noting that “music serves a unique function in worship” and concluding that the music director’s job was “an integral part of Catholic worship and belief.” In reaching this determination, the court did exactly what the Establishment Clause forbids: choose between competing religious visions. In the plaintiff’s vision of the Roman Catholic faith, music’s significance did not rise to the level of ministry, such that teaching it made her a minister. In the defendant’s vision, it did. The court essentially resolved a religious dispute about the role of music. Hosanna-Tabor potentially presents a similar risk. In determining whether Perich is a minister or not, the Supreme Court may end up resolving a religious dispute about the role of school teachers in Evangelical Lutheran Church schools.

In contrast, application of anti-discrimination laws like the ADA never requires that kind of direct grappling with religious doctrine or beliefs. Indeed, anti-discrimination cases may present no religious issues at all. To the extent they might, courts need not resolve theological disputes such as what role music or schoolteachers play in the church. Instead, they would be deciding whether a legitimate religious reason or an illegitimate secular reason (discrimination) motivated an employment decision. For example, imagine a church fires a teacher who has an extramarital affair, arguing that she violated the church’s proscription against sex outside marriage. In a sex discrimination case, the issue of whether sex discrimination has occurred depends on whether the school applies the religious policy equally to male and female teachers. The court will not have to resolve any doctrinal dispute or otherwise evaluate the religious merit of the proffered reason: no one questions the school’s religious belief that sex outside of marriage is forbidden. The court need not evaluate the plaintiff’s spirituality because no one disputes she engaged in forbidden conduct. The only question to be decided falls well within the court’s competence: determining whether the plaintiff’s evidence establishes that men and women were treated the same on this issue. In other words, the court judges the credibility of a religious reason, rather than whether something is religiously true. Judging the credibility of a proffered reason is within the court’s role and expertise. Resolving religious questions is not.

Further reading

For a more complete treatment of the ministerial exception, including explanations on why the courts would not delve into doctrinal issues when resolving discrimination claims even when defendant offers a more subjective religious justification for its adverse employment action, please check out my article: Above the Law? The Constitutionality of the Ministerial Exemption from Antidiscrimination Law.

Several other law professors have written interesting blogs about Hosanna-Tabor and the ministerial exception, including: Thomas Berg, Howard Friedman, Marci Hamilton, Rick Garnett, and Chris Lund. Most disagree with me.

Special thanks to Danielle Citron for letting me return to Concurring Opinions!

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1 Response

  1. Tom Berg says:

    Caroline, thanks for the interesting and cogent additional post. Here’s a response: