A Michigan appeals court has ruled that religious employers have the right to make some employment decisions based on a constitutional “ministerial exception.” According to the court, the exception is grounded in the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise clauses and bars a court from second-guessing a religious institution’s underlying motivations in an employment discrimination decision.
Essentially, employees hired to carry out an institution’s religious mission can’t sue under civil discrimination laws.
Recent case: Madeline Weishuhn worked as a Catholic school teacher, instructing grade school children in both religious doctrine and mathematics. She also helped prepare young students for first Holy Communion, prepared religious services and provided other religious-based instruction. All her lesson plans included some element of religion.
The church fired Weishuhn, and she sued for discrimination. The court concluded that religious institutions do have a limited ministerial exception to state anti-discrimination laws.
The court then went on to consider whether instructors such as Weishuhn, who also taught nonreligious math classes, could sue for discrimination. It sent the case back to the trial judge and ordered him to consider whether:
- Weishuhn had primarily religious duties and responsibilities.
- Those duties had religious significance.
- The position included proselytizing, was connected to the church’s doctrinal, spiritual or pastoral mission.
- Weishuhn’s functions were essentially liturgical and intertwined with the church’s religious doctrines.
Depending on what the court finds, it will either dismiss Weishuhn’s case under the ministerial exception or she will be able to take her employment discrimination case to trial. (Weishuhn v. Catholic Diocese of Lansing and St. Mary’s Catholic Church, No. 273117, Court of Appeals of Michigan, 2008)
Final note: Religious employers should contact legal counsel to see whether this ruling applies to all their employees, some of them or none of them. Your attorney can also help you structure positions to take advantage of the exception for appropriate ministerial employees.