(CN) – A fired department director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, Okla., cannot sue the church on wage and discrimination claims, the 10th Circuit ruled, because she falls under the so-called “ministerial exception” to federal employee protections.
The ministerial exception bars ministers from suing the church under civil employment laws, because such claims would require courts to meddle in church affairs, a violation of the First Amendment.
As the Denver-based appeals court put it, “any Title VII action brought against a church by one of its ministers will improperly interfere with the church’s right to select and direct its ministers free from state interference.”
But the scope of this exception has long been the subject of debate in the courts. Specifically, courts have grappled with whether the exception applies to lay employees whose positions include some ministerial duties.
A federal judge ruled that this was the case for Monica Skrzypczak, the former director of the Tulsa diocese’s Department of Religious Formation, who sued for alleged age and gender discrimination and violations of the Equal Pay Act after she was fired.
The 10th Circuit upheld the dismissal of her case, saying the evidence shows that her position “was not limited to a merely administrative role, but it also involved responsibilities that furthered the core of the spiritual mission of the Diocese.”
Skrzypczak was fired in 2007, after 10 years of supervising the church’s resource libraries and its Pastoral Studies Institute, where she also taught courses.
The appellate panel ruled that Skrzypczak, who is not ordained, functioned essentially as a minister would in the administration of church affairs.
Skrzypzak had argued that even if her employment claims fell under the ministerial exception, her allegations of a hostile work environment and Equal Pay Act violations should be allowed to proceed, because they do not involve a protected employment decision.
She urged the 10th Circuit to adopt the 9th Circuit’s reasoning in Elvig v. Calvin Presbyterian Church, which allowed a discrimination claim to proceed so long as the church did not mount a doctrinal defense.
But the Denver panel instead followed the 7th Circuit’s lead in Alicea-Hernandez v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, a decision 10th Circuit Judge Monroe McKay characterized as “the better-reasoned approach.”
That opinion held that “the ministerial exception applies without regard to the type of claims being brought,” because “to rule otherwise would enmesh the court in endless inquiries as to whether each discriminatory act was based in Church doctrine or simply secular animus.”
Because Skrzypczak qualifies as a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception, McKay ruled, her hostile work environment and equal pay claims are barred.
The circuit court division on the ministerial exception has a long history and many legal scholars believe only a definitive ruling by the Supreme Court will set a national standard for how it’s applied to lay and ordained employees.
“Although the exception is alive and well in many circuits,” Lauren Heller writes on the St. John University School of Law’s website, “the tides are beginning to turn. Recent attempts … to move away from the ministerial exception and increased public scrutiny of exceptions which exempt religious organizations from generally applicable federal laws suggest that the Supreme Court may have occasion to rule on the ministerial exception in the near future.”
She said the circuit courts “are desperately in need of a uniform and systematic way of applying First Amendment protections in the context of ministerial employment discrimination cases.”