By: Karen L. Piper
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in its first opinion applying the “ministerial exception” defense after the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the defense in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v EEOC (2012), expanded the scope of employers who can assert the defense. The defense allows religious employers to assert a defense to employment discrimination claims brought by employees who work in a ministerial role. The Sixth Circuit has now ruled that a non-church employer could assert the defense. Conlon v Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship/USA (2/5/2015).
Alyce Conlon worked as a Spiritual Director or Spiritual Formation Specialist at Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship/USA (IVCF). IVCF is a non-profit corporation. It calls itself an “evangelical campus mission” whose purpose is to establish and advance at colleges and universities “witnessing communities of students and faculty who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord …” Conlon’s duties included “assisting others to cultivate ‘intimacy with God and growth in Christ-like character through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines.’”
IVCF believes in the “sanctity of marriage” and desires all employees to “honor their marriage vows.” Conlon’s employment was terminated when her 25-year marriage failed, despite having been provided paid, then unpaid, time off to work on her marriage. Conlon sued IVCF for gender discrimination under Title VII and Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. IVCF sought dismissal based on the “ministerial exception.”
The ministerial exception defense was created by courts which recognized that the First Amendment bars review of a religious organization’s internal affairs. The Conlon court ruled that an employer did not have to be a church or diocese or synagogue or be operated by a traditional religious organization to claim ministerial exception. The court ruled that a group did not have to be “tied to a specific denominational faith; [the defense] applies to multidenominational and nondenominational organizations as well.” IVCF was clearly religious, not only in name, but in its mission of Christian ministry and teaching. IVCF could assert the defense to Conlon’s claim if she was a ministerial employee.
In determining whether Conlon was a ministerial employee, the court reviewed the four factors at issue in Hosanna-Tabor: (1) the employee’s title, (2) the substance reflected in the employee’s title, (3) the employee’s personal use of the title, and (4) the important religious function the employee performed. The Sixth Circuit determined that Conlon met the first and fourth factors – title (Spiritual Director or Spiritual Formation Specialist) and important religious functions (assisting others to cultivate intimacy with God and grow in Christ-like character). However, Conlon did not meet the second and third factors. Regarding substance, no evidence was offered about the training Conlon received to merit her ministerial title. Regarding Conlon’s use of the ministerial title, there was no evidence that Conlon had “the sort of public role of interacting with the community as an ambassador of the faith” sufficient to satisfy this factor.
In this case, fulfilling only the first and fourth factors – formal title and religious function – was sufficient for the ministerial exception to apply. Conlon’s sex discrimination claim was properly dismissed by the lower court. Employers with a religious purpose, who are sued for employment discrimination by an employee who meets some of these factors, should consult experienced employment counsel, such as the author, to look into asserting the ministerial exception defense.
This article was written by Karen L. Piper, who is Secretary of the Board of Detroit SHRM, a member of the Legal Affairs Committee, and a Member of the law firm of Bodman PLC, located in its Troy MI office. She can be reached at (248) 743-6025 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Detroit SHRM encourages members to share these articles with others, inside and outside their organization, as long as its name and logo, and the author’s information, is included in the re-post of the article. February 2015.