Ministerial Exception Applies to All Title VII Claims

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination in the workplace on several bases including race, color, sex, national origin, and religion. Title VII laws apply to all private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor organizations and the federal government if they employ at least 15 employees.

However, where religious employers are involved, the circuits are split.

In a recent decision involving the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Tenth circuit determined that a woman’s duty’s as the director of the department of religious formation placed her squarely within the ministerial exception to federal employment discrimination laws. Applying the ministerial exception, as endorsed by the Tenth, Fifth, Ninth, and District of Columbia, a church employee’s hostile environment claim improperly entangles of church and federal law. As a result, these circuits have held that not only are religious employers shielded from hostile environment claims, but all forms of discrimination under Title VII, including equal pay and age discrimination.

Although the ministerial exception typically applies to ministers, the exception covers any employee shown to be important to a church’s “spiritual and pastoral mission.”

This decision is at odds with the Ninth Circuit’s holding in a previous case, Elvig v. Calvin Presbyterian Church, 375 F.3d 951 (9th Cir. 2004) that a minister’s hostile environment claims against a church may be viable “so log as the church does not claim ‘doctrinal reasons for tolerating of failing to stop the [alleged] sexual harassment.”

The interplay between church tenets and federal sexual discrimination laws continues to evolve, with differences from circuit to circuit – even amongst the courts within a circuit.

In any case of employment discrimination, if you believe you have been treated unfairly or subjected any adverse employment action, it’s always best to consult with an attorney who can help explore your options. For more information, please contact the law firm of Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP, a Georgia law firm dedicated to employee’s rights.