Seven Ways to Clarify Spiritual Discipline: Process for Handling Misconduct Within the Church

The disciplinary process for erring employees is highly intertwined with statutory provisions like Title VII. If there is an allegation of sexual harassment or disability discrimination, you may quickly be involved with the Civil Rights Division or the EEOC, even as a religious organization. Whether you can address issues internally and independent of government oversight depends partly on your policies and agreements.

As a religious organization, you will be concerned not only about potentially illegal behavior, but also conduct that violates your spiritual standards (such as use of pornography). Some behavior, like sexual harassment, arguably violates both secular legal standards and spiritual standards.

Whether you can address these issues internally and independent of government oversight depends partly on your policies and agreements.

  1. If your job descriptions make it clear that particular employees are ministers, then you may be able to discipline them without government intrusion, because of the ministerial exception doctrine.
  2. If your code of conduct is clear that you consider certain types of behavior wrong for spiritual reasons and because of your spiritual beliefs, an ecclesiastical or spiritual approach to discipline is more reasonable.
  3. If you have a solid mechanism for reporting misconduct, and a good ecclesiastical process for investigating and then disciplining misconduct, you have another good argument for courts to stay outside your process.
  4. If you have an internal ecclesiastical appeal or review of your investigative process, it is even more likely that courts may defer to your internal process.
  5. If employees have been provided with a clear process of spiritual discipline, and have agreed to internal spiritual discipline, the process is more likely to be enforceable.
  6. In addition, your employee handbook can include a Christian dispute resolution agreement to handle all problems that arise during employment. Even for statutory rights like Title VII, it is possible to waive the rights in favor of alternative dispute resolution.
  7. The dispute resolution waiver should be specific and outline the fact that Christian mediation and then binding arbitration will be used instead of lawsuits. The waiver should be read and adopted by all employees. If each person has signed an alternative dispute resolution agreement, it is much more likely to be enforced.

Because courts are concerned about justice, if your process of spiritual discipline seems to address misconduct adequately, the courts are more likely to leave it alone.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations