Are all church employees "ministers"? That's a question for the courts to decide

By Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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The recent wave of firings of church employees who didn't match up to the moral standards of their employers has placed an interesting question before the courts: Just who is a minister of the church, and who is a regular, plain old employee?

The latest test came in the case of Christa Dias, who was fired from her job as technology coordinator and computer teacher in two Ohio Catholic schools in 2010. She informed her employer that she had become pregnant and was told that she violated Catholic teaching because the pregnancy was achieved through artificial means. When Dias accepted the job she agreed to a contract clause that said she would "comply with and act consistently in accordance with the stated philosophy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church," but as a non-Catholic, Dias said she had no idea that artificial insemination was in conflict with Catholic teaching. "Above all," the school's lawyers wrote in their legal filings, "this is a case about a contract" (how wonderfully pastoral of the school toward a single pregnant woman, but that is beside the point).

Well, as it turns out that contract didn't hold up in court. A federal jury found in favor of Dias, granting her a settlement of nearly $171,000. According to the Associated Press report: "The archdiocese had argued prior to trial that Dias was a ministerial employee and that the Supreme Court has said religious groups can dismiss those employees without government interference. But (Dias' attorney Robert) Klingler insisted Dias had no such duties, and the court found that she was not a ministerial employee."

The Supreme Court case in question here is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in which the court found that churches and religious groups are exempt from employment discrimination laws when it comes to the hiring and firing of ministerial employees. The Hosanna-Tabor case dealt with a teacher who mostly taught secular subjects but did spend about 45 minutes a day teaching religion. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the opinion of the court, said, “It is true that her religious duties consumed only 45 minutes of each workday, and that the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects. The issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved with a stopwatch."

But with someone like Dias, who spent no time teaching religion and wasn't even Catholic, the line was pretty clear--or at least it was to the jury. But there are still some tricky questions about what jobs within Catholic institutions would qualify as "ministry" and which would not (the janitor in a Catholic parish would probably not be a ministerial employee, but would the parish secretary?) and the courts will likely have to interpret other recent employee firings, like a gym teacher, to see if they hold up under the ministerial exception as defined by the Supreme Court.

I wouldn't be surprised to see the diocese appeal this decision, and I think the courts will still have a lot to sift through in future cases. But in the meantime, the Dias case might make church organizations a little more hesitant to fire certain employees over differences in faith and morals.