Kentucky Employment Law Cases Put Ministerial Exception Doctrine to the Test

August 21, 2012

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case where a teacher at a Lutheran School had filed a wrongful termination suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court dismissed the case, stating she could not file a workplace discrimination lawsuit because she was covered by the "ministerial exception." The Court of Appeals overturned the ruling based on the fact that the majority of her day was not spent in a ministerial capacity. However the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she was indeed covered by the doctrine and that the school had the right to terminate her.

The ministerial exception doctrine gives religious institutions the freedom to hire individuals that they think are most qualified to minister to their members without worrying about discrimination charges. But who constitutes a "minister" at a church-affiliated school or hospital and exactly what employment law issues are covered is still unclear. Three recent Kentucky employment law cases involving ministerial exception had differing results.

The first two cases involved two professors at the Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky. Both taught at the Protestant school, but neither were followers of the school's faith. In 2009, the seminary cut staff. Both men filed wrongful termination lawsuits, stating they were tenured professors and that they could only be terminated for failing to do their jobs or for misconduct, not for budgetary reasons. But both the district and appeals court ruled against the professors because of ministerial exception, stating the school has the right to decide who to terminate and that the government cannot intervene.

In the third case, a Louisville, Kentucky pastor was fired by the church he led from 2005 to 2010. In this case, the pastor was not claiming wrongful termination, but rather a breach of contract. A breach of contract occurs when and employer and employee agree to certain terms and sign a contract, the one party does not uphold their part of the agreement. In this case, the pastor claimed he was over $64,000 in salary and benefits by the church and he wants the church to pay him this amount. The Jefferson County Circuit Court refused to hear the suit based on the ministerial exception. In this case, the employee was an actual minister, so the court's decision makes sense in that respect.

But the Court of Appeals disagreed with the lower court's decision. Why? Because the pastor wasn't asking for his job back or disagreeing with his firing, he simply wanted what was promised him in his contract. So the court would not be interfering with the religious institution's leadership decisions. One judge's opinion stated, "...while termination of a pastor constitutes an ecclesiastical matter, breach-of-contract claims for wages or benefits accrued during the pastor's term of employment and prior to his termination do not constitute ecclesiastical matters."

These three cases illustrate the complexity of the ministerial exception doctrine and how it will continue to evolve as more cases test its boundaries. Kentucky employment law attorneys Charles Miller and Rheanne Falkner continue to follow this and other constantly-changing laws that affect Kentucky and Indiana workers. If you have questions regarding this topic or other employment law matter, please contact them.

Sources:

Kentucky Court of Appeals upholds Lexington Theological Seminary's dismissal of professors; The Courier-Journal; Peter Smith; July 27, 2012

Ruling: Ex-pastor can sue church over pay; The Courier-Journal; Peter Smith; August 19, 2012