Friday, February 06, 2015

6th Circuit: Ministerial Exception Is Non-Waivable

In Conlon v. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/ USA, (6th Cir., Feb. 5, 2015), the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals faced its first "ministerial exception" case since the Supreme Court's 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision.  In the case, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a Christian campus organization, asserted a "ministerial exception" defense in a sex discrimination suit against it by its former spiritual director who claimed that her firing because her marriage was heading toward divorce violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Michigan's Elliot-Larsen Act.  The 3-judge panel's majority opinion held first that IVCF, while not a church, is still a religious organization that can claim the ministerial exception for a ministerial employee such as plaintiff.

Conlon claimed that IVCF had waived the ministerial exception, but the majority held:
The ministerial exception is a structural limitation imposed on the government by the Religion Clauses, a limitation that can never be waived....
Finally the majority held that the First Amendment's ministerial exception can be asserted as a defense against state law claims, and can be raised by individuals when they are personally sued for discrimination as the agents of a religious employer.

Judge Rogers concurred in the result, but contended that the majority went further than necessary in reaching its conclusion.  He said:
Our decision today does not require us to decide whether a religious employer could enter into a judicially-enforceable employment contract with a ministerial employee not to fire that employee on certain grounds (such as pregnancy). Judicial enforcement of such a contract might unduly interfere with the independence of religious institutions, but barring religious institutions from offering such a legally binding guarantee might make it harder for some religious institutions to hire the people they want. Conlon in this case now disavows any contractual argument. Thus, to the extent that any analysis in the majority opinion might be read to govern non-Title VII employer obligations, such analysis is not necessary to our judgment. 
Acton Institute Power Blog reports on the decision. [Thanks to Paul deMello Jr. for the lead.]