Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ministerial Exception Applies Even Though Faculty Are Not Members of Seminary's Religion

In two related cases (but decided by panels that had only one judge in  common), the Kentucky Court of Appeal has held that the ministerial exception applies in two lawsuits by a seminary's faculty against the school, even though the plaintiffs are not members of the religious denomination-- Disciples of Christ-- that operates the seminary. Lexington Theological Seminary in 2009 declared a financial emergency, eliminated tenure and reduced the number of faculty and staff. In  Kant v. Lexington Theological Seminary, (KY CT App., July 27, 2012), a Kentucky appellate court in a 2-1 decision dismissed a breach of contract suit brought by a Jewish faculty member (a Jewish studies scholar) who was dismissed in the reorganization. The court, in an opinion by Judge Moore, held first that:
an inquiry into the rationale for LTS’s decision making as to who will teach its students—all of whom attend there with a desire to become pastors or ministers—would be an inquiry into an ecclesiastical matter by this Court.
It then held that the suit should also be dismissed under the ministerial exception doctrine, reasoning:
Because Kant’s primary duties involved teaching religious-themed courses at a seminary, his position was one that prepared students for Christian ministry.... Given his position as a faculty member teaching at a seminary, Kant’s personal views are not determinative of the function he served. Rather, we review the function of his position: teaching future Christian ministers primarily on Judeo-Christian subjects and culture. Kant’s personal faith and beliefs do not clash with the actuality that the classes he taught at LTS were for the purpose of preparing future church leaders of the Christian faith.
Chief Judge Acree filed a concurring opinion. Judge Keller dissented, arguing that there was a question of fact as to whether Kant was merely teaching about religion, or instead was teaching the Christian religion as an article of faith. He said: "in the absence of any evidence regarding the actual content of Kant's courses, I cannot conclude that Kant was a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception.

The second case, Kirby v. Lexington Theological Seminary, (KY Ct. App., July 27, 2012) involved a suit by a faculty member who belonged to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, but taught solely religious courses at the seminary. In a unanimous decision, the court dismissed the suit applying the ministerial exception doctrine. Judge Caperton wrote:
Given the Seminary’s commitment to Christian unity and an ecumenical spirit reflected in denominational diversity and interfaith inclusiveness, we fail to find persuasive Kirby’s argument that his lack of ordination or his lack of membership in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is determinative of his status at the Seminary.
Chief Judge Acree filed a concurring opinion. The Louisville Courier Journal reports on the decision.