Religious Exception Didn’t Apply to Fired Dean’s Contract Claim

By Joanne Deschenaux October 15, 2018
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The "ministerial exception" to civil rights laws for religious institutions didn't apply to a breach-of-employment contract claim brought by a fired seminary dean, a California appellate court ruled.

The exception guarantees a religious institution the right to decide matters affecting its ministers' employment free from review by the courts. But the court held that, because it didn't have to delve into religious matters to interpret the terms of the agreement, the dean's contract claim was not barred.

The dean, who had a written employment agreement, was fired by the acting provost of the university for insubordination. She filed a lawsuit alleging breach of contract, among other claims. The university moved to have the complaint dismissed before trial, arguing that, because of the ministerial exception, the trial court was barred from examining its personnel decisions. The trial court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit, and the dean appealed. The appellate court disagreed with the trial court on the contract claim and allowed the claim to go to trial.

Elements of Contract Claim

The appeals court first noted that the following elements are required to successfully assert the ministerial exception as a defense to a contract claim:

  • The employer must be a religious group.
  • The employee making the claim must qualify as a minister.
  • The contract claim must be one that turns on an ecclesiastical inquiry or "excessively entangles" the court in religious matters.

The appeals court first concluded that the university was a religious organization and that the dean, although not a minster, was a "ministerial employee."

The exception, the court said, should apply to any employee who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a "messenger or teacher of its faith," and the dean was such an employee.

The university, however, failed to satisfy the third element necessary for application of the ministerial exception, the court said. Interpreting the dean's contract, which she alleged the university had breached, did not require the court to "wade into doctrinal waters" because it did not require a review of her religious qualification or performance as a religious leader.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Involuntary Employment Termination in California]

There was no dispute that she was fired for insubordination and not for religious reasons, the court said. However, the dean argued that she had not been insubordinate because employment documents defined insubordination as the failure to follow a supervisor's order, and she was never given an order that she failed to follow. She also claimed that the university had not followed the termination procedures in the contract.

The university "voluntarily circumscribed" its own conduct by entering into the contract and the contract could be enforced without breaching the institution's religious autonomy, the court concluded.

Sumner v. Simpson University, Calif. Ct. App., No. C077302 (Sept. 25, 2018).

Professional Pointer: As this case shows, the ministerial exception is not limited to churches but extends to church-related institutions, including church-affiliated schools. The ministerial exception is also not limited to members of the clergy but includes all employees of a religious institution, whether ordained or not, whose primary duties are religious in nature.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer In Annapolis, Md. 

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