The Ministerial Absention Doctrine in Kentucky

Last week the Kentucky Supreme Court heard arguments on two important cases regarding whether a private religious school can invoke the First Amendment’s “ministerial abstention” doctrine in defending against breach of contract claims brought by terminated faculty.

The cases, Kirby v. Lexington Theological Seminary and Kant v. Lexington Theological Seminary, involve lawsuits filed by two former Lexington Theological Seminary professors after they were dismissed by the institution.  One professor was hired to prepare future church leaders as an instructor of “Church and Society” and to teach students about the Bible in a manner consistent with the seminary’s religious mission.  A second professor taught courses about the New Testament, theological thought and modern references to Jesus.  After their positions were eliminated, both filed suit.

The Kentucky Supreme Court now will address whether the former professors have valid lawsuits against the Seminary or whether courts are prohibited from entertaining claims such as these based upon the religious nature of the school.  In the recent case of EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, the Supreme Court of the United States held that governmental officials are prohibited from interfering “with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.”  In that case, because the Christian school treated its teachers as ministers responsible for the spiritual well-being of students, the government could not apply laws prohibiting discrimination against the school because doing so would affect the faith and mission of the church itself.

These cases before the Kentucky Supreme Court present the first occasion for Kentucky to address whether to adopt the “ministerial exception” and in particular, with reference to contract claims (a question the Hosanna-Tabor court expressly chose not to address).  This doctrine protects the right of religious institutions to select their ministerial employees without interference from government officials.

Courts usually employ an ecclesiastical abstention where they refrain from ruling on internal matters relating to internal governance of religious institutions.  The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is important because it touches on all aspects of internal church (and by extension religious schools) governance, including theology in practice and the selection of its ministers.

Historically, from the general ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, developed a ministerial exception to protect employment decisions of religious institutions addressing its ministerial employees.  As the Supreme Court recently recognized: “requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so…interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of who will personify its beliefs.”  Accordingly, the ecclesiastical abstention prevents secular courts from reviewing religious disputes within a church and if the dispute arises out of an employment decision, then the ministerial exception applies concerning ministerial employees of a religious organization.

Kentucky has historically recognized the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine dating back to at least the 1930s.  Although Kentucky courts have adopted and applied the broader ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, until these suits, Kentucky courts have not had the occasion to address the doctrine’s progeny – the ministerial exception. These important decisions for the Kentucky Supreme Court should clarify the application of these principles for Kentucky’s religious institutions.

            Attorneys at Sturgill, Turner, Barker & Moloney, PLLC filed an amicus brief in support of Lexington Theological Seminary on behalf of the Association of Christian Schools International and Alliance Defending Freedom.  The Association of Christian Schools International has more than 60 Kentucky members educating over 15,000 students with the Commonwealth. 

Bryan has more than 15 years of litigation experience in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights, education law, employment law, insurance law and public entity defense. He has defended numerous public employee speech claims as well as claims before the EEOC charging race, gender, age and disability discrimination. From 2010 through 2012, Bryan served as Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, developing and supporting its allied attorney network.

U.S. Supreme Court Recognizes “Ministerial Exception” to Employment Claims

 This week the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision upholding the application of the “ministerial exception” to claims of employment discrimination against church employers.  In Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the Supreme Court has recognized a ministerial exception grounded in the religion clause of the First Amendment which acts as a bar to claims of employment discrimination brought by a church minister challenging the church’s employment related actions.  The Court ruled that judicial review of a church’s employment actions as they relate to its ministers amounts to “government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.”

 While recognizing a ministerial exception, the Supreme Court declined to adopt a bright line test for determining when an employee qualifies as a “minister” for purposes of the exception.  The Court did find that the exception applied to the employee at issue in this case, a teacher for Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School.  While teaching both secular and religious classes, she was in a designated teaching category which recognized her as having distinct ministerial roles.  She had received specific religious education and training and was endorsed as a minister by the church.  She further held herself out as a minister and her job duties clearly reflected a role in “conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission.”  In light of these facts and circumstances, the Supreme Court concluded that she was subject to the ministerial exception.  The Supreme Court expressly limited its ruling to claims of employment discrimination brought on behalf of a minister challenging an employment decision, specifically declining to express an opinion whether the ministerial exception may act as a bar to other actions by employees such as those alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers.

          To read the full Supreme Court Opinion, click here.

Kacey Coleman

Kacey is Of Counsel with Sturgill, Turner, Barker & Moloney, PLLC and focuses her practice on employment law, education law and governmental liability defense. Kacey previously served as general counsel for a major state university and is well-versed on the areas of the law that affect schools, colleges and universities, such as teacher performance, hiring and dismissal, student discipline, the Civil Rights Act, Title IX compliance and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Kacey also defends employers in all aspects of employment related litigation, handling claims of sexual harassment, race, age and gender discrimination and violations of wage and hour laws and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). She also represents a variety of public entities, and is knowledgeable about issues unique to the public sector including whistleblower claims, conflicts of interest, constitutional issues (state and federal),  open records and open meetings laws, and immunity for government agencies and officials.

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