Can an Employee Sue a Ministry for Decisions Based on Religious Beliefs?

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.

  • What type of employee is making the claim?
  • What has the ministry done to clearly spell out its expectation of employees?

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 Applies to Employer/Employee Relationships

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:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • National origin

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.

Ministerial Exception Recognized

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.

Who’s Considered Ministerial Staff?

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:

  1. Whether the religious institution made its decision to hire the individual based “largely on religious criteria.”
  2. Whether the individual is authorized to perform ceremonies of the church.
  3. Whether the person engages in ecclesiastical or religious activities and “attends to the religious needs of the faithful” as part of their job function.

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.

Communicate Expectations to Limit Non-Ministerial Lawsuits

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.

Take Steps to Avoid an Employment-Related Lawsuit

To reduce the likelihood of an employee bringing a successful employment-related lawsuit against your church or ministry, consider the following steps:

  1. Include a spiritual purpose provision in your governing documents/bylaws. Be sure your organizational governing documents clearly state your ministry’s spiritual purpose, your reliance on scripture, and the intent to advance the ministry in accordance with scripture. Where appropriate, quote scripture within the purpose statement.
  2. Include a morals clause in your employee handbook. Be sure your employee handbook includes a policy telling your organization’s employees that the church expects them to support its spiritual purpose and behave in accordance with it. Including such a clause in your handbook, when applied consistently, can go a long way toward protecting the church from employment-related lawsuits.
  3. Respond with sensitivity. Train your clergy, staff, and volunteers to approach individual needs and requests with empathy. Although you cannot meet every request or demand, the manner in which you convey your response is sometimes as important as what you have decided.
  4. Consult with local counsel: When revising organizational documents and ministry policies and procedures, involve a local attorney. A wide variety of federal, state, and local laws apply to employer/employee relations. Consulting with a local attorney can provide guidance on any state-specific and local legal issues that you may encounter. You also should contact your attorney and your insurance agent any time you anticipate an employment-related claim against the church.


Have Proper Insurance Coverage for Claims Related to Belief-Based Decisions

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.

Additional Resources

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—Purpose Statements (Biblical Foundation and Creedal Foundation samples)

Sample Policy—Morals Clause