Employment Law Daily Church can’t avoid pregnancy firing claim … at least not yet
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Friday, May 4, 2018

Church can’t avoid pregnancy firing claim … at least not yet

By Joy P. Waltemath, J.D.

Finding too many factual disputes as to application of either the ecclesiastical exemption or the ministerial exception doctrines, a federal magistrate in Alabama refused to dismiss the pregnancy discrimination claim of a fired maintenance and child care worker. The church asserted that it fired the employee because her pregnancy evidenced she had engaged in sexual conduct outside of marriage and thus, the court lacked jurisdiction as assessing the discharge decision involved review of religious doctrine, an exercise which violates the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. It alternately claimed that the ministerial exception precluded the child care worker’s claims, but the magistrate found that the jurisdictional challenge the church raised was a factual one, requiring the court to provide the worker an opportunity for discovery and a hearing on the disputed issue of whether the discharge was because of pregnancy or because of a violation of religious tenets. Similarly, on the face of the complaint itself, the worker’s status as a minister was not apparent as an affirmative defense, and so the magistrate would not dismiss the complaint on that basis (Kelley v. Decatur Baptist Church, May 1, 2018, Johnson, H., Jr.).

According to the complaint, during her six months as a maintenance and child care worker for the church, the worker notified her employer she was pregnant. When a pastor became aware of her pregnancy, she was terminated and told, she said, that it was “because of the pregnancy.” After obtaining a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, she sued alleging pregnancy discrimination. With its motion to dismiss her complaint, the church included affidavits from the pastor and the daycare director who both asserted that the worker was fired because she engaged in sexual conduct outside of marriage.

Ecclesiastical abstention. First up was the church’s contention that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to even adjudicate this claim because assessing the discharge decision would involve review of religious doctrine, an exercise which violates the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. It’s too soon to tell, reasoned the magistrate, pointing out that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, also known as the church autonomy doctrine, does not entirely exempt decisions by religious organizations from adjudication. Civil courts “may apply neutral principles of law to decide church disputes that ‘involve no consideration of doctrinal matters,’” but civil courts must not use the neutral principles’ approach to determine matters of religious doctrine or governance.

“Factual” jurisdictional challenge. Reviewing Eleventh Circuit precedent, the magistrate noted that subject matter jurisdiction challenges on a motion to dismiss could be either facial or factual. Here, the challenge was factual in that it involved matters outside the pleadings, such as testimony and affidavits that were disputed. As such, “a district court must give the plaintiff an opportunity for discovery and for a hearing that is appropriate to the nature of the motion to dismiss.” The worker claimed the pastor discharged her because she was pregnant, and the church contended the pastor discharged her because she violated religious tenets. If the church’s averred reasons for firing her were true, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine would apply to bar the claim; otherwise, its assertions would be evidence of pretext buttressing the pregnancy discrimination claim. Accordingly, the magistrate denied the motion to dismiss on subject matter jurisdiction grounds and allowed the worker to conduct discovery on the disputed issues.

Ministerial exception. The ministerial exception is an affirmative defense, not a jurisdictional bar, explained the magistrate, and a court may not dismiss a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) if the complaint does not demonstrate the affirmative defense on its face. On the face of the worker’s complaint, her well-pleaded facts did not indicate she served as a minister or in a ministerial capacity for the church. It merely declared that she was a maintenance and child care worker, although the church argued that she was a minister charged with “equipping, training, and evangelizing the next generation according to biblical standards and morals,” a position she disputed. These disputed issues prevented the magistrate from applying the ministerial exception as a matter of law, and he denied the motion to dismiss.

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