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Fourth Circuit Broadens Ministerial Exception to Court Jurisdiction

Charlotte Catholic High School (CCHS) fired Lonnie Billard, a gay teacher, for getting married to a man—a fact that CCHS readily admits. Yet, the termination was not discrimination. How is that possible? The Fourth Circuit greatly loosened religious institution’s ability to classify secular employees as “ministers.” Given his ministerial designation, the court no longer had the power to apply Title VII’s anti-discrimination provisions.

Before we get into the weeds of the law, here is some background. CCHS is a Roman Catholic high school. CCHS employed Lonnie Billard as an English and Drama teacher (although, on a few occasions he substituted for religion classes—a fact that the Fourth Circuit points to with glee.) Lonnie did not teach religion, but the school maintained general policies requiring teachers to imbue all lessons with “catholicity”.

Lonnie worked for the school for several years, during which time he received several awards for his teaching. Nonetheless, shortly after Lonnie announced his marriage to another man, CCHS decided to let Lonnie go for engaging in “advocacy in favor of a position that is opposed to what the church teaches about marriage.” A lawsuit ensued.

In the lawsuit, the court, sua sponte, decided that Lonnie was subject to the ministerial exception. The “ministerial exception,” which derives from the religion clauses of the First Amendment, prevents civil courts from adjudicating employee’s discrimination claims. The Supreme Court first recognized a ministerial exception to Title VII in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled religious institutions are exempt from anti-discrimination laws for workers who are classified as “ministerial.” In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court articulated four criteria for evaluating whether an employee fulfills a ministerial role:

  1. formal title;
  2. the substance reflected in that title;
  3. use of the title, and
  4. the important religious functions performed.

The Supreme Court revisited the Hosanna-Taylor opinion in Our Lady of Guadalupe. In Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Supreme Court decided that a teacher fell within the ministerial exception because the teachers’ led students in daily prayer and prepared them for mass and other important liturgical activities such as feast days, Lenten services, and an annual performance of the Passion of the Christ. The ruling liberalized their previous opinion by holding “[w]hat matters, at bottom, is what an employee does,” and how those functions and duties interact with the mission of religious schools.

Applying the Supreme Court’s loosened standard, the Fourth Circuit found that Lonnie fit the criteria for a ministerial employee. The Fourth Circuit specifically said, “[t]he ministerial exception protects religious institutions in their dealings with individuals who perform tasks so central to their religious missions – even if the tasks themselves do not advertise their religious nature.” In this case, the Fourth Circuit believed CCHS sufficiently demonstrated Lonnie’s role was central to their religious mission because Lonnie:

  • Attended mass with students;
  • Facilitated morning prayer (although the teacher need not be the one to lead the prayer);
  • Was required to exemplify “catholicity” in classroom; and
  • Ensured lesson plans were consistent with the Roman Catholic faith.

This is a significant departure in the type and degree of religious involvement required by the ministerial exception. Even in Our Lady of Guadalupe, which previously liberalized the ministerial exception, the teachers had substantial and consistent involvement with the religious functions of the school.

While this ruling does not apply to all religious schoolteachers, it makes it much more likely that teachers at religious institutions will fall under the ministerial exception. This is especially true if the school maintains policies that stress how teachers are involved in the facilitation of religious activities.

Brody and Associates regularly advises management on complying with the latest local, state and federal employment laws.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560