Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ministerial Exception Defense Rejected In Racial Discrimination Suit By Administrative Assistant

A North Carolina federal district court has rejected a religious organization's "ministerial exception" defense in a Title VII racial discrimination case brought by a former administrative assistant in the group's Global Ministries office.  In McCallum v. Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86997 (WD NC, Aug. 5, 2011),  the court held that the former employee who was the only African American in the organization's executive offices could move ahead with a discrimination claim based on a downsizing that eliminated only her job and which came after she complained that African American congregations were not being invited to participate in a summer camp youth program.
At this stage of the proceedings, BGEA has not demonstrated that the Church Autonomy Doctrine bars Plaintiff's lawsuit or that McCallum's former job as an Administrative Assistant in Global Ministries falls within the ministerial exception. Here, McCallum's position did not entail traditional ministerial functions such as teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship. Nothing in the record suggests that McCallum had decisionmaking authority or substantive input regarding the content of BGEA's religious message, the delivery or expression of the message, or its intended audience.... McCallum's primary function was to provide administrative or clerical support....
 Although the Court holds that Plaintiff was not in a ministerial role... McCallum's claim, is likely to pose the very type of entanglement issue that the Church Autonomy Doctrine and ministerial exception seek to avoid.... [It will] necessarily call into question BGEA's outreach decisions.... As a practical matter, the Court contemplates that as the case proceeds there will be certain doctrinal topics that will, in fact, remain "off-limits."
The court, however, dismissed plaintiff's second claim in the lawsuit-- Title VII retaliation.  The court held that the alleged retaliation was in response to plaintiff's questioning the organization's summer camp invitee list, not in response to her opposing an employment practice, as required by Title VII.