Monday, March 24, 2008

Split Noted: What is the Proper Application of the Ministerial Exception?

Per Rweyemamu v. Cote, 2008 WL 746822, *17 n. 4 (2d Cir. Mar. 21, 2008)

Plaintiff, Father Justinian Rweyemamu, filed a Title VII suit alleging that the Diocese of Norwich (CT) racially discriminated against him by denying him a promotion and, ultimately, firing him. This is not the first lawsuit arising from these facts; Father Rweyemamu had previously appealed to higher church authorities as well as filed state law claims of discrimination. The Church found ‘just cause’ for his removal. In this suit, as in the preceding state claims, the district court cited the ‘ministerial exception’ and dismissed the case.

Dating to approximately 1900, the ministerial exception is a doctrine that reflects an unwillingness of the courts to interfere with ecclesiastical hierarchies. The exception is part of the common law tradition, rather than specifically enacted by Congress into Title VII. This Second Circuit panel stresses the First Amendment heritage of the exception (both free exercise and establishment are implicated), emphasizing that it is not simply a matter of judicial abnegation. Just for fun, note that this decision concerning abnegation and the Catholic Church came down on Good Friday.

During the discussion of the ministerial exception, however, Judge Walker notes that the circuits have split on how to apply it. CAs 1,3,9,10 treat the exception as a waivable affirmative defense. CAs 6,7 treat it as a jurisdictional bar. Finally, CAs 5,11 treat the ministerial exception as just that – an exception meaning that Title VII does not apply to claims between a church and its ministers. This case is the first in which the Second Circuit affirms the existence of the ministerial exception. It does not delineate its view of the boundaries and application of the exception in this case, where any of the three views would bar judicial review. The panel therefore affirms, finding Title VII unconstitutional as applied to Father Rweyemamu’s claims.

Additional coverage from How Appealing and Wait a Second!.

UPDATED: As the comment from Wait a Second!'s author notes, I misread his entirely accurate summary. I have changed my mischaracterization and apologize.

1 comment:

Second Circuit Civil Rights Blog said...

I did note in an implied way that the ministerial exception is part of the common law tradition, in writing that "Even prior to Title VII's enactment, the ministerial exception has prevented courts from resolving disputes against certain religious entities. As the Second Circuit noted, "Since at least the turn of the century, courts have declined to 'interfere[] with ecclesiastical hierarchies, church administration, and appointment of clergy.'"

I did, however, expressly revise the posting by stating that the ministerial exception derives from the common law tradition.