Understanding the Ministerial Exception in California Employment Lawsuits

Both federal and state anti-discrimination laws cover most employers in California. These laws prevent employers from firing or taking other adverse action against workers on the basis of their gender, race, ethnicity, pregnancy, nationality, disability, etc. However, as our Riverside employment lawyers can explain, religious institutions – including schools – are often protected by something known as the ministerial exception. What sometimes throws people is that:

  • One does not need to be an actual minister – or even administrator – for the exception to be applicable.
  • The ministerial exception may protect religious institutions from claims of employment discrimination that aren’t solely about religious discrimination.ministerial exception California

The California Supreme Court in the past has expressed empathy for employees at religious institutes (mostly schools) unable to sue for employment discrimination under the law when they’d otherwise be able to, but for the ministerial exception. It remains a significant barrier to some claims.

Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a racial harassment, discrimination, and retaliation claim by a California Catholic high school principal, who the court found qualified as a minister under the ministerial exception.

In Orr v. Christian Brothers High School, Inc., the plaintiff was the first Black principal ever hired by the school, a Catholic co-ed high school in Sacramento. He initially believed his hiring meant the school was preparing to address the historically low number of minority students (particularly Black students) to better reflect the surrounding community. One of his first steps was to hire the first Black assistant principal, also a woman. But he said he soon clashed with another administrator – one who retained the last say in things like how much tuition assistance families needed or what staff actions should take place. Plaintiff said Black families were consistently granted far less tuition assistance than their financial situation indicated. The other administrator openly speculated that the father of one Black student applicant was “likely incarcerated,” absent any evidence of this. Meanwhile, White student applicants typically received the full amount of financial aid for which they applied.

Plaintiff said that when he pointed out the disparity of treatment and advocated on behalf of those families, the administrator turned on him. Plaintiff said he began to feel as if his hiring was merely for optics, and that the school had no real desire to alter its homogenous student body. According to the complaint, the administrator continued to make racially-charged comments, indicate the principal was not “sophisticated” enough for the job, and ultimately ended up firing both the principal and the assistant principal he’d hired.

In his lawsuit, he alleged he’d been forced to work in a hostile work environment where he was harassed and discriminated against and ultimately wrongfully terminated. He filed claims of racial discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and provisions of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

The Ministerial Exception

The ministerial exception protects religious institutions from certain types of employment discrimination claims because of the First Amendment. The U.S. Constitution expressly grants churches and other religious entities the right to decide matters of church doctrine, faith, and governance without the interference of government. The ministerial exception states that religious organizations have scrutiny over employment decisions involving their own “ministers.”

But the term ministers has been employed broadly – much to the chagrin of religious school employees. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that when determining whether employees at religious schools are “ministers,” the primary consideration is whether they have a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission. The education of young people in their faith – and teaching them to live their faith – are responsibilities at the core of private religious school missions, the Supreme Court has said. For this reason, many teachers at these schools qualify as “ministers” for the purpose of the exception – even if they aren’t leading the church or students in religious study, worship, etc.

In the Orr case, the federal appeals court held that the principal played a key role in religious education of these high school students – participating in religious activities and services, aiding the school in outlining its faith-based community and teachings. He also had a supervisory role in overseeing certain facets of religious programs and instructions. His own receipt of religious education was part of his role. (The court noted that there’s no principled distinction between principles and teachers where the ministerial exception is concerned).

We should point out, however, that the court was clear in saying that not all employment claims are going to be shielded by the ministerial exception. For instance, allegations of sexual harassment unrelated to a religious school’s employment decisions wouldn’t meet the criteria for a ministerial exception. It’s also true, the court held, that racial discrimination claims could potentially prevail in a case like this, but only where the allegations and the school’s employment decisions could be separated.

Further, FEHA (which tends to provide greater protections for workers than what’s outlined in federal law) has its own exemption for religious organizations or non-profits. In this case, the 9th Circuit held, the claim couldn’t prevail under FEHA where the school hadn’t waived its statutory exemption for non-profit religious corporations. The school never referenced FEHA in its employee handbook nor indicated an agreement to be bound by it.

Bottom line is that while the ministerial exception can be a major burden to employment lawsuits against religious institutions and religious schools. Still, it is usually worth it to consult with an experienced employment lawyer to explore all your legal options if you have been discriminated against by your employer.

Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Newport Beach, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.

Additional Resources:

Ninth Circuit blocks discrimination suit by Black principal against Catholic school, Nov. 23, 2021, By Hillel Aron, Courthouse News

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