Figuring out who qualifies as a minister is essential for navigating the employment laws that impact your ministry. The Ministerial Exception might seem complicated, and it is – we’re here to give you an overview of the this legal doctrine and how you can apply it in your ministry.
The Ministerial Exception is a legal doctrine that exempts religious organizations from certain employment laws, allowing them to select and govern their own ministers without government interference. This exception is based on the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, and it recognizes that government intervention in ministerial employment decisions could be a violation of this right.
Under the Ministerial Exception, certain laws, such as anti-discrimination laws and wage and hour regulations, may not apply to ministers or other employees who perform religious functions. This means that religious organizations have different legal obligations towards ministers than towards non-ministerial employees. This fact has huge impact on compliance with labor law.
While the Ministerial Exception can be beneficial for religious organizations, it also places a greater responsibility on them to ensure that their employment practices are fair and just. It is important for every church and faith-based organization to honor the biblical principle that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from it, as stated in 1 Corinthians 9:14.
The fundamental issue when applying the ministerial exception is determining which religious employees qualify as ministers. There are a few major cases which have impacted the court’s view on this issue:
Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC et al: In this case, a teacher at a Lutheran school alleged wrongful termination due to a disability. The school argued that the Ministerial Exception applied to her position as a teacher with religious duties, and the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the school, establishing that religious organizations have the right to make employment decisions for their ministers and employees with religious duties without government interference.
Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru & James School v. Biel: In both cases, Catholic school teachers alleged discrimination. These cases were consolidated and settled by a 2020 Supreme Court Decision that ruled in favor of the schools. The Court emphasized that the determination of who qualifies as a minister is not solely based on job title, but on the entirety of an employee’s job duties.
Qualification for the ministerial exception is determined by many factors, not just job title. Overall, an employee’s job duties and job description must reflect a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.
Unfortunately, there is no rigid formula that can determine who is a minister under the legal doctrine of the ministerial exception. The determination of who qualifies must consider the full breadth of the job performed.
Basically, you must determine if the employee plays a role in advancing the message of your ministry and your mission. In the cases we mentioned earlier, the schools won their argument that religious teachers were ‘ministers’ because of their key role in spreading God’s word and instructing children. Your office manager (even if their official title was ‘minister of administration’) would be less likely to be considered a minister under this doctrine because their job duties may not be religious in nature.
If you’re unsure about how the Ministerial Exception applies to your ministry, consider subscribing to HR 360 by ChurchHRNetwork. By subscribing, you can access a ministerial exception checklist, as well as 1-1 counseling with an HR professional who will walk you through this complex legal doctrine.
By understanding the Ministerial Exception and its implications, you can make informed decisions about employment laws in your ministry, avoid costly mistakes, and maintain a compliant work environment. For a more in-depth explanation of the Ministerial Exception and its application in ministry, watch our full webinar to strengthen your knowledge and safeguard your organization.
Charlie Cutler is the President of ChurchWest Insurance Services, a California-based agency that specializes in providing insurance solutions to churches and related ministries. Charlie has been with ChurchWest for over 20 years and has extensive experience in the insurance industry, with a particular focus on the unique risks and challenges facing Christian organizations. Charlie is a sought-after speaker and has presented at numerous conferences and seminars on insurance and risk management topics.
Sign up for the ChurchWest newsletter to stay up to date on all our latest content, webinars and event announcements.