Courts still trying to define a minister
Fired Christian school chaplain claims racial discrimination
A federal appeals court in Colorado heard arguments Tuesday in a case which may help define how much freedom churches and religious organizations have to decide who to hire and fire.
Faith Christian Academy argued before a three-judge panel that the “ministerial exception” barred a lower court from considering longtime faculty member Gregory Tucker’s claim that the school fired him in 2018 for organizing a chapel service that focused on racism. The school says Tucker embraced unscriptural positions in the service and continued to air his views in the school community against instruction.
The main question before the court is what role Tucker played at Faith Christian. Becket counsel Daniel Blomberg, who represented the school, argued the trial judge should have dismissed the case based on the ministerial exception, which bars the government from interfering in religious institutions’ internal matters.
According to Blomberg, this case is even clearer than Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru in 2020, when the Supreme Court decided elementary school teachers at two Catholic schools qualified as ministers. While they taught mostly secular subjects, the judges found the teachers performed “vital religious functions” by praying with their students, taking them to Mass, and preparing them to participate in religious activities.
Tucker was responsible for the content of chapel services and spiritual life of the students and primarily taught Bible and other religious classes, Blomberg pointed out: “This case is not pushing the envelope a bit but is in the heartland of the ministerial exception.”
But the scope of the exception remains unclear. In March, a Massachusetts state appeals court refused to apply the doctrine to a social work professor at evangelical Gordon College. Unlike Tucker, Margaret DeWeese-Boyd had no specific religious duties, but Gordon said all faculty were ministers because they must integrate religious faith into instruction and scholarship.
For judges, the “integration” argument was a bridge too far. “This would provide a significant expansion of the ministerial exception well beyond ‘individuals who play certain key roles’ in a religious institution,” the court reasoned. “As a result, the breadth of this expansion of the ministerial exception and its eclipsing and elimination of civil law protection against discrimination would be enormous.”
Gordon may appeal to the Supreme Court. Faith Christian is awaiting a ruling. Meanwhile, the question remains: Who is a minister?
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