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.