In the landmark Hosanna-Tabor case decided earlier this year, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment bars the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers. What this means is that such a so-called “ministerial exception” exempts an employer from the application of the anti-discrimination laws, and an employee deemed a minister has no recourse to Title VII, the ADA, the ADEA, etc. Read our earlier discussion of the case.
A federal appeals court which decided its first post-Hosanna-Tabor case has just held that a church music director who was fired could not sue under the ADEA or the ADA because of the “ministerial exception.” The employee claimed that he was not a minister, was not ordained and lacked the education, training, and experience to be considered a minister, had purely-secular duties, and that “he merely played the piano at Mass and that his only responsibilities were keeping the books, running the sound system, and doing custodial work, none of which was religious in nature.”
The Church, on the other hand, contended that the music director “foster[s] the active participation of the ‘liturgical assembly’ in singing, and promoting the various musicians—choir members, psalmists, cantors, and organists—all of whom play instruments in service of the liturgy. Thus, the person who leads the music during Mass is an integral part of Mass and ‘a lay liturgical minister actively participating in the sacrament of the Eucharist.’”
The Court found for the Church, noting that Hosanna-Tabor sets “no rigid formula” for determining who is a minister and mandates a fact-intensive, totality-of-the-circumstances analysis. Analyzing the facts, the Court held that the music director fell within the "ministerial exception" because “there is no genuine dispute that [he] played an integral role in the celebration of Mass and that by playing the piano during services, [he] furthered the mission of the church and helped convey its message to the congregants.”
Since finding a "ministerial exception" is a fact-intensive inquiry, it is hard to draw a conclusion as to the significance of this new decision. Suffice it to say that it may mean that courts may very well bend over backwards to find such an exception, since the music director here had no indicia of being a minister. The Court credited his piano playing at Mass as "further[ing] the mission of the church and help[ing] convey its message to the congregants.” But even the janitor can be deemed to be furthering the mission of a church simply by keeping it clean, and even a lay secretary or clerk can be deemed to be helping convey a church message by typing and mailing church correspondence.
Let’s see what other courts do.