How the “Ministerial Exception” Ruling Already Impacts Church Workers

Catholic Church employees and others are speaking out about the negative impacts of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding ministerial exemptions to employment non-discrimination law. The court determined that a religious institution could broadly define which employees fall into the category of “ministers” and thus be exempt from following legal protections against discrimination, including those for LGBTQ+ identity.

Religion News Service interviewed several church employees to see how the ruling would affect them or their institutions.  In particular, the article noted the vulnerability of LGBTQ+ educators in Catholic schools, and said that “Many of those LGBTQ teachers are even more troubled about possible firings today” than they had been before the ruling. One educator explained:

“ ‘The minute the Supreme Court ruling came out, I sent all my stuff to my lawyer, including the school’s policy, and I was like, “Should I be worried about my job?”’ said one New York City Catholic school administrator who is queer and didn’t give her name because she fears she might get fired if she acknowledged her sexuality at the school where she works.”

Ish Ruiz

Ish Ruiz, a religious studies teacher at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory H.S., San Francisco, also has the job of helping other teachers develop their spirituality.  While Ruiz acknowledges that his role would probably classify him as a minster, he “worries that those who teach math, science, English and social studies  at his school could now be classified as ministers if they partake in explorations of their spiritual gifts,” the article reported.

“‘This makes it harder to get my Catholic colleagues to engage on what it means to be Catholic educator, if in doing so, they might be performing a ministerial function, thus depriving themselves of civil rights,’ Ruiz said.”

The situation for church employees could get worse in terms of their civil rights becauselaw firms that represent churches and religious institutions are encouraging their clients “to beef up their governance documents to clearly state their religious character and thereby immunize them from discrimination claims,” the article said. One such lawyer was quoted:

“What I’ve been telling people so far, and will continue to do, is to be as religious as possible,” said Sally Wagenmaker, a lawyer with Wagenmaker & Oberly in Chicago, a firm that takes religious liberty cases. “If you’re a religious organization now, get more religious. If you’re not very religious, think about it, if you want to protect your religious liberty protections.”

J.Patrick Hornbeck II

For institutions that prioritize classifying all employees as ‘ministers,’ one Catholic institution employee recommended that Catholic employers ought to be explicit about this classification in hiring practices. J. Patrick Hornbeck II, who is a legally married gay man and chair of the theology department at Fordham University, New York, notes that would let the pool of interested applicants know they should be prepared to “forfeit their civil rights protections.” Hornbeck said:

“If religious employers were encouraged to say, “We deem you a minister. And please note from the beginning of your employment with us that you don’t have these job protections,’ That would allow an employee on the front end to know he or she is entering on a job where they don’t have normal protections.”

This Supreme Court decision has brought about multiple losses. First and foremost is the loss of civil liberties by a wide number of employees at Catholic and other religious schools, agencies, and institutions. Second is the lost opportunity to foster an inclusive and robust dialogue about Catholic or religious identity in these institutions. The third loss was identified in a comment from Ruiz, who observed “We have corrupted the word ‘minister.’ We put a stain on the word”

Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, July 30, 2020

1 reply
    DON SIEGAL says:

    Ministerial Exemption

    Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (2020) is to the LGBTQ community as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was to black civil rights and school segregation. Plessy was not overturned by SCOTUS until Brown v. Board of Education (1954). So, there is not likely to be any help to overturn Our Lady of Guadalupe any time soon. (Our Lady must be spinning in disgust for using her name for such an unfair ruling.)

    That leaves us with the comment by Francis DeBernardo: “Even though the U.S. Supreme Court did not provide justice for LGBTQ employees in Catholic agencies, Catholic people in the pews will demand that their bishops and other leaders do so. The struggle is not over. It has simply moved to another venue.” (9-July-2020). This reader envisions Catherine’s analysis as an opening of that venue.

    Prospective teachers in Catholic schools, colleges, and universities should demand at the point of employment that the position will not be determined to have a ministerial roll and that the ministerial exception does not now and never will apply to the that position. If this condition is not an option, then it might be in their self-interest to look elsewhere for employment. After all, just because one works in a private or public institution does not mean that one cannot model the teachings of Catholic social and economic justice.

    In the meantime, lay Catholics in the pews, they should hold their pastors and bishops accountable when they unjustly fire Church workers. Remember Dorothy Day: “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”


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