Author: ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision recently that demonstrates why churches should be updating their by-laws to protect against potential litigation that can threaten the constitutional right of the church to select its ministers free from government interference. The case was called Skrzypczak v. Diocese of Tulsa. In the case, the Diocese hired Ms. Skrzypczak to work as the Director of the Department of Religious Formation for the Diocese. She also had a supervisory role over the Diocese's Pastoral Studies Institute and taught some religious courses at the Institute. After working for several years for the Diocese in this capacity, Ms. Skrzypczak was terminated. She filed suit against the Diocese alleging age and sex discrimination.
The issue in the case was whether Ms. Skrzypczak was considered a minister for purposes of the "ministerial exception" to Title VII which is the law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of, among other things, race, religion, age, and sex. Title VII usually prohibits discrimination unless the employee is considered a minister of a religious organization. If the employee is a minister, then Title VII does not apply and the courts will not hear claims of discrimination in employment. I should also note that a church is allowed by Title VII to make employment decisions on the basis of religion even with non-minister employees. You can read a lot more about this by downloading our white paper on church autonomy.
The Tenth Circuit described that the ministerial exception "preserves a church's 'essential' right to choose the people who will 'preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines[,] both to its own membership and to the world at large,' free from the interference of civil employment laws." The Court explained that, "Although the doctrine usually comes into play in employment suits between an ordained minister and her church, it extends to any employee who serves in a position that 'is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church.'"
Key to the Court's holding that Ms. Skrzypczak's position fit into the ministerial exception was the fact that the Diocese was able to present evidence that included a job description that discussed the position held by Ms. Skrzypczak in terms of its importance to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the Diocese. This decision may be in conflict with the recent 6th Circuit decision in the Hosanna-Tabor case Kevin Theriot blogged about recently. The Tenth Circuit got it right in the Skrzypczak case, though.
The Court's holding enabled the Diocese to avoid a costly protracted lawsuit and demonstrates the need for churches to update their by-laws to include job descriptions for each position in their church specifically describing how those positions contribute to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church. Having such job descriptions for each position at the church will make it easier for a church to bring itself into the ministerial exception if a lawsuit arises as a result of an employment decision by the church.
ADF has on its website a document called Seven Things all Churches Should Have in their By-Laws. Also on the website is a document that contains suggested language for selected topics in the church by-laws. These resources will help your church to get started reviewing the by-laws to make sure the church is in the best possible position to avoid litigation and to protect the constitutional right of the church to select and hire its own ministers without government interference.
This post originally appeared here.