Music is a vital part of worship for many religions. But at what point should a musician be considered a religious minister? The answer to this question has legal ramifications for musicians who work at congregations, schools, and/or other religious institutions. Courts regularly treat cantors and music directors who lead congregations in prayer as clergy who are subject to the ministerial exception – a common law doctrine that excludes religious employees from the protections of employment discrimination laws. The line between artist and minister, however, is not a particularly bright one for musicians who do not routinely lead prayer services. Two federal court cases decided this past summer highlight the subjective nature of determining when a musician who works for a religious institution veers into the realm of clergy.
In the 2012 case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, the Supreme Court upheld the ministerial exception with respect to employment discrimination laws on First Amendment grounds. The Court ultimately found that two key factors determine the applicability of the ministerial exception: 1) whether the employer is a “religious institution” and, 2) whether the employee is a “minister.” The Court declined to adopt a “rigid formula” to assist the lower courts in determining who constitutes a minister. Rather, the Court held that the each determination should be case-specific and that the courts should consider certain factors such as the employee’s training and background, his or her job duties, and the perception of the employee in the community.
Curl v. Beltsville Adventist School: Private School Music Teacher is a Minister
This past August, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland found in Curl v. Beltsville Adventist School that the ministerial exception applied to a music teacher at a Seventh-day Adventist school. The Court therefore barred her from pursuing federal employment discrimination claims alleging that her termination was based on age and disability discrimination and a violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act. At first blush, it looked like the music teacher had a good case to avoid the “minister” label and maintain her lawsuit. She was responsible for “teaching students skills associated with singing, playing instruments, and reading music, as well as teaching the history of music in the United States and abroad” – hardly the job description of a traditional clergywoman. The Court, however, concluded that the plaintiff was a minister who was not protected by anti-discrimination employment laws. The Court reasoned that the plaintiff was a “minister” because she was a practicing Seventh-day Adventist herself, taught both sacred and secular music, occasionally led prayer at the school, and agreed to “be committed to the Church’s program of ministry.”
Collette v. Archdiocese of Chicago: Don’t Judge a Minister by His Title
Only a few weeks earlier, on July 29, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois declined to reach the same result without further discovery in Collette v. The Archdiocese of Chicago. In this case, a former employee of the Archdiocese of Chicago and Holy Family Catholic Parish with the concurrent titles of “Director of Music” and “Director of Worship” claimed that he was illegally terminated because of his sex, sexual orientation, and marital status. His employer argued that the job titles alone established that he was covered by the ministerial exception. The Court, however, found that a title by itself is not enough to establish than an employee is a minister. In reaching its decision, the Court also considered the plaintiff’s assertion that he was not responsible for planning the liturgy or choosing the music played during services. The Court ordered the parties to conduct additional discovery on the issue before making a final decision.
These two cases are the most recent developments in a growing body of case law involving musicians employed by religious organizations. They show that the fact-specific analysis of who constitutes a minister can lead to some surprising results: A music teacher at a private school may be a minister in the eyes of the law despite never viewing herself in such a role and a musician who serves as a Director of Worship may be able to escape the label of minister despite his title. Unfortunately for such musician-employees, the distinction between minister and non-minister can have a real, practical impact on the employee’s job security and access to traditional legal remedies.