New Wine in an Old Chalice: The Ministerial Exception's Humble Roots

AuthorBlair A. Crunk
New Wine in an Old Chalice: The Ministerial
Exception’s Humble Roots
Though she had earned two promotions durin g her 16-year career
with Lockheed Martin in New Orleans, Ms. Agnes Motton read one
particular office memorandum in 1995 with disappointment.1 Her
employer had selected other candidates to fill the open Control
Mechanic positions for which she had interviewed.2 Oddly, all four of
them were male.3
Confident in her claim, Motton sued Lockheed Martin on unjust
discrimination grounds.4 After establishing her prima facie case,
Motton further asserted her superior qualifications as compared to
those hired.5 The Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal agreed,
finding that Motton’s length and breadth of experience surpassed
those of two hired Control Mechanics.6 Although Lockheed Martin
disputed the allegations, it could not muster a legitimate reason for
failing to promote Motton.7 Ultimately, the court held Lockheed
Martin accountable for intentional sex discrimination against
Motton, signaling legal and societal intolerance for unfair
employment discrimination.8
In jarring contrast with this result, if Lockheed Martin had been
a religious institution and Motton had applied for a position
entailing ministerial duties, all other facts being equal, the
ministerial exception may have squelched Motton’s sex
discrimination claim. As a mechanism “rooted in the First
Amendment’s guarantees of religious freedom,”9 the judicially
created ministerial exception precludes courts from adjudicating
Copyright 2013, by BLAIR A. CRUNK.
1. See Motton v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 900 So. 2d 901, 906–07 (La. Ct.
App. 4th 2005) (per curiam).
2. See id.
3. Id. at 907.
4. Id. (“Subsequently, Ms. Motton filed suit in state court under Louisiana’s
employment discrimination statutes, alleging Lockheed intentionally discriminated
against her in denying her a promotion to the Co ntrol Mechanic’s position based
upon her sex and race.”).
5. See id. at 909–13.
6. Id. at 914 (“Based on each candidates [sic] qualifications, it seems
reasonable to conclude the jury found Motton was clearly better qualified than
Dennis Caddell and Willie Henderson.”).
7. Id. (“We find it reasonable to believe the fact finder, the jury, rejected
Lockheed’s expl anation for not hiring Ms. Motton. ”).
8. Id. at 914–15 (“We find the trial court did not err by finding that
Lockheed intentionally discriminated a gainst Ms. Motton on the basis of sex.”).
9. Hollins v. Methodist Healthcare, Inc., 474 F.3d 223, 225 (6th Cir. 2007).
certain employment discrimination claims. By definition, the
ministerial exception, as it has developed, “operates to exempt from
the coverage of various employment laws the employment
relationships between religious institutions and their ‘ministers.’”10
Under the altered Motton facts, the ministerial exception would
perhaps leave Motton without a legal remedy, and her religious
employer would face no consequences whatsoever for its actions.
Motton would not even get her day in court, illustrating a disconnect
between largely similar factual scenarios yielding wildly different
results. The crux of this rift juxtaposes two core values of American
law and society—religious interests on one hand and protection
against discrimination on the other.
This Comment explores the viability of the ministerial exception
in its current form against the backdrop of employment
discrimination laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of
1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the
Americans with Disabilities Act.11 These federal statutes protect
employees from discrimination on several bases, including sex,
religion, disability, and age. At present, the ministerial exception
may prohibit any employment discrimination claim, while some
statutory exceptions to Title VII permit discrimination only on the
basis of religion.12
In a palpable sense, the ministerial exception has expanded since
its inception in McClure v. Salvation Army, which defined the
exception’s scope as covering the church–minister relationship.13
This broadening trend has opened the door for religious employers
to discriminate against certain employees and then look to the
ministerial exception as protection against legal action. It is
precisely this shield that would thwart Motton’s discrimination
claim in the hypothetical reli gious scenario. Such drastic expansion
of the ministerial exception risks sacri ficing employee safeguards
against discrimination, which embody a critical societal policy.
On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court for the first time
recognized “such a ministerial ex ception” in HosannaTabor
Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission, a case addressing whether the ministerial
10. EEOC v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., 213 F.3d 795, 800
(4th Cir. 2000).
11. See infra Part I.A.
12. The religious organization, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1 (2006), and religious
curriculum, id. § 2000e-2(e)(2), exceptions exempt only discrimination based on
religion. Title VII further contains a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ)
exception, which applies more broadly. See infra Part I.A.
13. See McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553, 560 (5th Cir. 1972).
2013] COMMENT 1083
exception applied to a teacher at a Lutheran school.14 While the
ministerial exception has varied in its application since McClure,
HosannaTabor presented an opportunity for articulation of a
definitive ministerial exception inquiry. In view of the inconsistent
results that ministerial exception jurisprudence has fostered, the
need for a clarified standard is pressing.15
In general, courts routinely cite the First Amendment’s Religion
Clauses as grounds to apply the ministerial exception.16 In doing so,
courts afford the First Amendment significant weight, particularly
with the exception’s continued expansion. Perhaps refusing religious
discrimination allowances entirely would constitute the most serious
threat to the free exercise of religion. With its statutory exceptions,
Congress indeed grants several exemptions.17 If these currently
cover too little, the remedial expansion should occur through
legislation instead of case law.
Mindful of the Supreme Court’s ruling in HosannaTabor, this
Comment argues chiefly that the ministerial exception moving
forward should inquire whether the employer–employee relationship
satisfies the original intent standard under McClure.18 Furthermore,
any expansion or deviation from the pure, originally intended form of
the ministerial exception, as courts have been apt to effect, must come
from Congress. Extended or more numerous statutory exceptions
would properly ensue, instead of leaving the ministerial exception to
the unbridled whim of court discretion. Part I of this Comment
provides the necessary background on federal employment
discrimination laws and explores the pertinent exceptions to these
regulations. After outlining the statutory exceptions, Part I then tracks
the ministerial exception’s inception, expansion, and ascension to the
high court. Part II analyzes the ministerial exception’s development
and establishes its inconsistent application since McClure. Part II then
demonstrates the need for a more consi stent ministerial exception
standard and endorses a narrow, original-intent approach. Part III
surveys other scholarly recommendations to remedy the current
ministerial exception, nodding more animatedly to the narrowing
proposals. Part IV recognizes the ministerial exception’s interaction
with the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment and addresses the
potential problems that a narrow approach could prompt. Finally,
14. Hosanna–Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, 132 S.
Ct. 694, 706 (2012).
15. See infra Part II.
16. See discussion infra Part IV.A–B. The First Amendment provides:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” U.S. CONST. amend. I.
17. See infra Part I.A.
18. See McClure, 460 F.2d at 558–59.

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