Appeals court rules for employer on ‘ministerial exception’

Employment discrimination laws sometimes take a backseat to the religious-liberty rights of religious institutions.

In summary, employees of religious institutions simply do not have the same protections from anti-discrimination laws as other employees because of a principle called the “ministerial exception,” rooted in the idea that the government should not interfere with the freedom of religious institutions and how they conduct their internal affairs.

Both religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment undergird the exception. The Establishment Clause – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” – provides for separation between church and state.   The Free Exercise Clause – “or abridging the free exercise thereof” – provides protection for religious beliefs.

The ministerial exception has a place in a society that strives to protect religious liberty and ensure that government doesn’t control or intrude into the affairs of religious entities.  However, it also works hardships on individuals and, if applied broadly, could become a license to discriminate.

Consider the recent decision by the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Conlon v. Intervarsity Christian Fellowship/USA.

Alyce Conlon worked as a spiritual director at InterVaristy Christian Fellowship/USA (IVCF), an evangelical campus mission. She had worked with the group since 1986. The group believes in the sanctity of marriage and desires that its employees remain married.  Conlon informed a superior of marital difficulties. According to Conlon, the group terminated her for “failing to reconcile her marriage.” She claimed that two or more male employees divorced their spouses but were not terminated or disciplined.

After her termination, Conlon sued, alleging sex discrimination.  In April 2014, a federal district court dismissed her suit because of the ministerial exception. On February 5, a three-judge panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of Conlon’s suit – once again because of the ministerial exception.

The Sixth Circuit quoted the following language from the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School (2012): “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision.  Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church.”

The Sixth Circuit concluded: “Because IVCF is a religious organization and Conlon was a ministerial employee, IVCF’s decision to terminate her employment cannot be challenged under federal or state employment discrimination laws.”

The result may seem quite unfair to those who have suffered sex discrimination.  However, others praise the ruling as a triumph for the principle of religious liberty.

David L. Hudson Jr. is the First Amendment Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute.

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