Ministerial Exception and Church Autonomy

A white paper by Jessica Ross, Esq. about ministerial exception and how it can benefit your religious organization.

In its first ministerial exception case post-Hosanna-Tabor, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals holds that a Lay Principal can’t sue her Catholic School for discrimination.

If you have employees who may be ministers, you need to take practical steps to define their role. Here are some suggestions on how to clarify who is a minister.

Defamation claims against religious organizations are more common than you would think. It’s almost impossible to challenge who a religious organization selects as a minister or how it disciplines that minister. So these claims focus on the idea that what was said about the minister is defamatory—something that is not directly controlled by constitutional law. Here is a recent example of a case that ultimately had an indirect constitutional defense. 

As a general rule, most missionaries would fit the ministerial exception, and it would be the rare employee where the mission would say that the person does not further its religious purposes. Persons would not be included under this exception if... 

If a religious organization believes that a minister or other employee has engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior, what responsibility does it have to notify others? How does child sexual abuse change the rules for normal termination procedure? Those who become victims of that person insist it is the organization’s duty to share that information. Employees who have been terminated for such behavior say sharing such information is a breach of confidence amounting to defamation. 

A woman elder, a church employee, vehemently disagreed with her senior pastor’s position on a particular issue. She insisted on pushing her position until the Session finally fired her. Then she sued the church. But the Court agreed with the church that the government has no business telling the church how to manage its leadership.