Earlier this month, the Sixth Circuit addressed the “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination employment laws in Conlon v. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, et al. This was the first time the Sixth Circuit considered the ministerial exception since the Supreme Court unanimously upheld its existence in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC.
The plaintiff in Conlon worked as a “spiritual director” or “Spiritual Formation Specialist” for staff members of defendant InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA (“IVCF”), an “evangelical campus mission serving students and faculty on college and university campuses nationwide.” The plaintiff alleged that IVCF terminated her employment for failing to reconcile her marriage. According to IVCF policy, employees with significant marital issues are encouraged to seek help to move towards reconciliation, and IVCF can consider the impact of marital separations or divorce on the organization and its stakeholders. The plaintiff claimed that IVCF’s decision to terminate her employment constituted gender discrimination under Title VII and Michigan’s Civil Rights Act, as two similarly situated male colleagues who divorced their spouses were not disciplined or terminated. The Sixth Circuit found that the plaintiff’s claim fell squarely within the purview of the ministerial exception and accordingly affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the case on First Amendment grounds.
The Court’s opinion reaffirmed much of what we already know about the ministerial exception. First, the exception applies not only to employers that are traditional churches, but also to “religious institutions.” In this case, the employer was an organization that established and supported ministries on college campuses across the country. Second, the exception applies not only to employees who are traditional pulpit clergy, but also to anyone who fits the legal definition of “minister.” Here, the plaintiff’s title of “spiritual director” and her stated duty of assisting others to cultivate “intimacy with God and growth in Christ-like character through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines” was enough for the Court to find that she was a minister.
Perhaps the most interesting twist in this case is the Court’s decision that a religious institution cannot waive the ministerial exception. Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor, the Sixth Circuit held the opposite. The Sixth Circuit, however, stated that the language of Hosanna-Tabor foreclosed this possibility, as the Supreme Court spoke in terms of the government’s responsibility to avoid interfering in a religious organization’s choice of minister. The Sixth Circuit stated, “This constitutional protection is not only a personal one; it is a structural one that categorically prohibits federal and state governments from becoming involved in religious leadership disputes.”