By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.
The school relied on an agreement that characterized the employee as “chaplain” and a handbook which purported to make all teachers and other full-time employees “ministers,” but the employee presented evidence that reasonably allowed the opposite conclusion.
Because it was disputed whether a Christian high school teacher’s additional responsibilities fell within the “ministerial exception,” he defeated summary judgment on his Title VII claim asserting that his employer retaliated against him for opposing racial harassment when it terminated him for organizing a controversial “Race and Faith” chapel service. A federal district court in Colorado ruled that while the exception precludes application of anti-discrimination laws to employment decisions made by religious organizations with respect to their own ministers, the parties disputed whether the school had promoted the teacher to chaplain or student life director, and whether the duties he actually performed qualified for the exception (Tucker v. Faith Bible Chapel International dba Faith Christian Academy Inc., May 18, 2020, Jackson, R.).
What he a “chaplain?” After having taught science classes at the Christian school for many years, the teacher was given additional responsibilities in 2014. However, the parties disputed whether these were as a chaplain or as a director of student life. The school contended that an extension agreement and its handbook made clear he was a “chaplain,” but he claimed he only held that title on paper.
Fired after race-themed service. On January 12, 2018, he held a “Race and Faith” chapel service which was not well received by some students and parents. He was subsequently demoted back to being solely a teacher, and in a letter to students, parents, and teachers, he stated that “the Bible repeatedly explains the kingdom of God as made up of a diverse group of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation” and that his “prayer” was that his controversial service “would be a step toward recognizing and appreciating this beautiful picture.” He was subsequently terminated.
Employee claimed exception didn’t apply. The teacher presented ample evidence in support of his argument that his positions did not qualify for the ministerial exception. For example, he claimed he was instructed to integrate a “Christian worldview in his teachings but was not provided any training, instruction or literature as to what that worldview should be, other than Bible-oriented.” He was also never required to teach a class in religious doctrine or to set aside time in his classes specifically dedicated to a religious message. He was told “not to preach, but to encourage students to think through their own perceived versions of Christianity and to consult their parents about specific theological matters.”
After he assumed additional duties in 2014, he was still informally referred to as teacher. And while his contract and extensions referred to his new position as “Chaplain,” he claimed he was never referred to by that title by students, teachers or administrators. When asked which title he preferred, he chose director of student life since it had no religious connotation. His email signature, business cards, and updated job description all also used that title. He believed that using the title “Chaplain” would be “disingenuous” since he was not an ordained clergy member.
Job responsibilities. In his additional role, he helped students find service and mentoring opportunities; supported parents who had questions about their child’s growth and achievements; and promoted a positive student environment. He also counseled students concerning behavior but did not counsel or discipline them concerning theological principles or principles of faith.
Chapel meetings. In his last year he was also responsible for organizing weekly “chapel meetings,” which were “assemblies or symposiums where people who held a variety of religious perspectives (or sometimes non-religious perspectives) would speak on matters of interest to the school.” These meetings also included announcements, awards, rallies, student election speeches, and other matters ordinarily related to high school and the administration explicitly communicated that they were not regarded as church.
Not held out as “minister.” The employee also never heard superintendents, principals, teachers, staff, students, parents, or others refer to teachers or the director of student life as “ministers.” He was also unaware of any instance where the school held itself out as a ministry of the church. And when he once asked about a tax deduction available to ministers to assist with housing costs, he was told that he did not qualify because he was not a minister.
Ministerial exception. In its landmark Hosanna-Tabor decision, the Supreme Court first applied the “ministerial exception” to an employment-discrimination lawsuit brought by a teacher at a religious school. The Court made clear that it was not adopting “a rigid formula” and identified four circumstances that contributed to its decision that the exception applied in that case: (1) the school held the teacher out as a minister, (2) her title as a minister “reflected a significant degree of religious training followed by a formal process of commissioning;” (3) the teacher held herself out as a minister in several ways; and (4) her job duties “reflected a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.”
Was employee a “minister?” While the district court found that the school qualified as a religious group or organization, a triable issue existed as to whether the employee was a “minister” within the meaning of the “ministerial” exception.” The school mostly relied on the wording of documents, most notably the extension agreement that characterized the employee as “chaplain” and the handbook which purported to make all teachers and other full-time employees “ministers.” However, because the employee presented evidence that could lead a reasonable jury to reach the opposite conclusion, summary judgment was not warranted.
Supreme Court cases pending. The court noted that two Ninth Circuit cases involving the application of the ministerial exception to schoolteachers were presently before the Supreme Court. However, while the Court’s resolution of those cases was likely to explain and define the ministerial exception in the schoolteacher context, there was no compelling reason to further delay the resolution of the pending motion here.
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