Employees in nearly all organizations, secular or religious, can sue their employer because of the employment-related decisions the employer makes. The U.S. Constitution, however, affords ministries certain protection for decisions that ministry leaders make based on their religious beliefs (belief-based decisions). Even so, the likelihood that a court will uphold a ministry employee’s claim against a church or related ministry depends largely on two factors:
In Hosanna-Tabor, the U.S. Supreme Court formally recognized a ministerial exception that effectively bars ministerial staff from suing their employer in response to employment related, belief-based decisions that ministry leaders have made concerning the employee.
The landmark 2012 Supreme Court ruling, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, makes it easier for churches to defend themselves when pastors and ministerial staff sue the church because of hiring and firing decisions that ministry leaders have made in accordance with the church’s beliefs. When secretaries, custodians, and other non-ministerial staff advance such claims, defending the claim is not quite as clear-cut, but the ministry can improve its position if it clearly communicates its expectations to employees.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the most prominent federal law that has been enacted to provide equal employment opportunities for individuals, regardless of the person’s:
Many state and local laws mirror Title VII in general terms, but such laws also may apply even more broadly than the federal statute.
Title VII applies specifically to employer/employee relationships. To comply with the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Title VII includes certain exemptions for religious institutions. These exemptions help protect ministry leaders when employment decisions are made based on the ministry’s religious beliefs.
In Hosanna-Tabor, the U.S. Supreme Court formally recognized a ministerial exception that effectively bars ministerial staff from suing their employer in response to employment related, belief-based decisions that ministry leaders have made concerning the employee. While this ruling grants greater autonomy to churches in making employment-related decisions, it did not completely answer the question of who will qualify as a minister for purposes of the exemption.
This particular case involved a teacher at a church-affiliated school, who sued her former employer for disability discrimination when church leaders dismissed her from her teaching position. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that this teacher was, in fact, a minister of the church, and therefore fell within the ministerial exception. The result of this ruling permits churches and related ministries to make hiring and firing decisions based on their religious beliefs with less concern about employment-related lawsuits that pastors and other ministerial staff may initiate.
Because the ministerial exception only exempts religious institutions from employment claims that ministers bring against the organization, it’s important to know the definition of the term minister for purposes of the exception. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court declined to specifically define who should be considered a minister for purposes of the exception. Instead, the justices said a court will look to see:
From these criteria, an employed individual whose job function encompasses primarily that of ministering to others can be considered a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception. Senior pastors and other similar roles appear to fit within the three-factor test.
Custodial staff, secretarial staff, and others who have jobs that primarily support ministry work (as opposed to performing the ministry work itself) likely won’t be considered ministers for purposes of the exception. This means that a lawsuit alleging employment discrimination poses a greater threat to the ministry if brought by a custodian or a secretary than by a pastor.
Churches and ministries can protect themselves from non-ministerial staff lawsuits by clearly communicating the ministry’s expectations to job applicants and ministry employees.
Statement of belief: Include a statement of the ministry’s spiritual beliefs within the organization’s governing documents or bylaws. This lays the foundation for the ministry to operate in accordance with its stated beliefs.
Employee handbook: Tell job applicants and your employees what’s expected of ministry workers in writing in your employee handbook. Include a statement letting employees know that you expect them to follow and support the ministry’s spiritual beliefs, and abide by other requirements that the ministry sets forth for its employees.
Consistent response: If the church or ministry treats an employee or a group of employees differently than it does another person or group within the employee body, the odds of the ministry losing a lawsuit increase significantly. For example, if the organization strongly disciplines one employee for a policy violation and lets another employee off the hook for the same violation without punishment, the individual whom the church disciplined may have a valid claim of workplace discrimination.
In short, if a church or ministry does not clearly spell out its expectations of employees and consistently follow them, the likelihood that a non-ministerial employee could bring a successful claim of discrimination against the organization increases significantly.
To reduce the likelihood of an employee bringing a successful employment-related lawsuit against your church or ministry, consider the following steps:
Even if a court eventually dismisses a lawsuit, the legal costs associated with employment litigation can be substantial. Accordingly, ministries should work with their insurance agent to ensure that their organization has appropriate employment practices coverage in place for the ministry and its leaders.
For additional information about employment issues related to churches and ministries, please review these additional resources:
Working Together, A Guide to Employment Practices for Ministries
SAMPLE POLICY DOCUMENTS
Sample Policy—Purpose Statements (Biblical Foundation and Creedal Foundation samples)
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