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Massachusetts High Court Weighs In On Ministerial Exception To Discrimination Laws

In a recent decision, DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the “SJC”) held that a former professor at a religious college could proceed with claims of retaliation against the college under the state’s employment discrimination statute.

In rejecting Gordon College’s (“Gordon” or the “College”) motion for summary judgment, the SJC proposed a nuanced and narrow reading of the so-called “ministerial exception,” which bars some employees of religious organizations from suing their employers under federal or state anti-bias laws.  

The SJC’s decision should serve as a reminder to religious employers – including religious private schools – to use caution when considering whether anti-discrimination laws apply to their employees. 

Background:  The Ministerial Exception  

The so-called “ministerial exception” is a legal doctrine, rooted in the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses, that is meant to protect the freedom of religious institutions to shape their own faith and mission through their hiring decisions, without governmental interference.  The exception prohibits ministerial employees from bringing discrimination claims against religious institutions. 

Whether a religious institution – for example, a church, a school, or a service organization – qualifies for the exception in any specific circumstance typically hinges on whether the particular employee performs a ministerial function.  

While the ministerial exception is not so broad as to apply to all employees of religious institutions, it is also not so narrow as to encompass only those typically thought of as “ministers.”  In its landmark 2012 decision Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a teacher at a religious school – who, among other things, led her class in daily prayers – was a “minister” for the purposes of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses and therefore could not bring a disability discrimination suit against the school in connection with the termination of her employment.

In its analysis, the Court noted that both the school and the teacher considered the teacher to be a minister, and that her job duties included conveying the Lutheran Church’s teachings.  Furthermore, the teacher qualified for a housing allowance tax credit that was available only to employees earning compensation “in the exercise of the ministry.”  

However, the Hosanna-Tabor Court declined to adopt any bright-line test for deciding when an employee qualifies as a “minister.”  Rather, the Court indicated that this issue must be decided on a case-by-case basis, considering all of the relevant facts.  In particular, the Court was not swayed by the argument that the teacher spent the majority of her work time performing secular duties, stating that whether an employee qualifies for the ministerial exception is not an issue that “can be resolved by a stopwatch.”

It is against this somewhat murky backdrop that lower courts (and employers!) must consider whether a given employee of a religious institution is covered by the federal and state anti-discrimination laws.  

Factual Background To DeWeese-Boyd 

Gordon College is a small Christian college of about 1,500 undergraduate students, located in Wenham, Massachusetts.  According to the College’s website, “Gordon stands apart from other outstanding institutions in New England by combining an exceptional education with an informed Christian faith.”

In 2016, in light of the Supreme Court’s Hosanna-Tabor decision, and over the objection of certain faculty members, Gordon revised its faculty handbook to state that all professors are “ministers.”  In support of the College’s mission, Gordon professors are required to integrate “faith and learning” in their classroom teaching and in their scholarship.  

Margaret DeWeese-Boyd was hired by Gordon as a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Social Work in 1999, and was promoted to an associate professorship, with tenure, in 2009.  In 2017, after being denied a promotion to full professor, DeWeese-Boyd sued Gordon, claiming that the College’s decision was made in retaliation for DeWeese-Boyd’s expressing her opposition to the College’s LGBTQ policies, which are based on Gordon’s conservative religious principles.

In 2019, the College eliminated its social work major, resulting in DeWeese-Boyd’s losing her job.  

Supreme Judicial Court’s Decision  

On Gordon’s motion for summary judgment, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge rejected the College’s argument that DeWeese-Boyd’s claims were barred by the ministerial exception.  The Superior Court ruled that while Gordon qualifies as a religious institution, DeWeese-Boyd could not be considered a minister for the purposes of the exception.   

On appeal to the SJC, Gordon’s lawyers pointed to the handbook language, arguing that the College expected DeWeese-Boyd to teach students how to integrate the truths of Christianity into their social work.  The College also argued that DeWeese-Boyd’s classes were taught in a “devotional manner” and served to strengthen students’ faith. 

Rejecting these arguments and upholding the lower court’s ruling, the SJC focused closely on what DeWeese-Boyd’s job entailed and on what it did not.  The SJC stated that DeWeese- Boyd was “first and foremost a professor of social work.  She taught classes on sustainability and general social work practice and oversaw practicums.”  

The SJC then distinguished DeWeese-Boyd’s situation from those of teachers in Hosanna Tabor and similar cases:  “DeWeese-Boyd was not required to, and did not, teach classes on religion, pray with her students, or attend chapel with her students . . . nor did she lead students in devotional exercises or lead chapel services . . .”  Underlining these differences, the SJC stated that “a faculty member with DeWeese-Boyd’s responsibilities at Gordon is significantly different from the ordained ministers or teachers of religion at primary or secondary schools in the cases that have come before the Supreme Court.”

Finally, the SJC did not find the broad use of the term “minister” in Gordon’s faculty handbook to be persuasive.  Instead, the SJC characterized this as merely a “change of label,” put in place in a “presumed attempt to bring faculty within the scope of the Ministerial Exception.”

Implications For Employers

While the DeWeese-Boyd decision turned closely on its facts and is not necessarily predictive of how a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court would rule in a similar case, the decision nonetheless serves as a cautionary tale for religious employers seeking to avoid liability under anti-discrimination laws.  

As a practical matter, religious employers are well advised to follow the letter of federal and state anti-discrimination laws unless there is an important religious reason for doing not so, and the employee in question clearly seems to fall within the definition of a ministerial employee.  Employers who seek to use the ministerial exception as a defense should be aware that the standard is limited, evolving, and evaluated under a fact-intensive analysis.

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If you have any questions about the SJC’s DeWeese-Boyd decision or any related discrimination issues, please feel free to reach out to one of our experienced employment attorneys.