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Media Alerts - Conlon v. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA -- Sixth Circuit
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February 17, 2015
  Conlon v. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA -- Sixth Circuit
Headline: Sixth Circuit applies First Amendment's ministerial exception in upholding religious organization's firing of employee contemplating divorce

Areas of Law: Employment Law; U.S. Constitution.

Issue Presented: Did the First Amendment's ministerial exception bar state and federal employment-law claims against a religious organization and its individual supervisors?

Brief Summary: A religious organization fired the plaintiff after she disclosed that she and her husband were contemplating a divorce. After her firing, the plaintiff sued the organization and her former supervisors in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan, alleging illegal gender discrimination under state and federal civil-rights laws. The defendants moved to dismiss, asserting the First Amendment's ministerial exception. The district court granted the motion, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed, finding that the defendants were entitled to the ministerial exception.

Extended Summary: From 2004 to 2011, the plaintiff worked as a "spiritual director" for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In March 2011, the plaintiff told her supervisor that she and her spouse were considering a divorce. This notification was required under InterVarsity's employment policy. InterVarsity placed the plaintiff on leave to repair her marriage but eventually fired her on December 20, 2011. The plaintiff sued InterVarsity and her former supervisors, alleging that her firing was based on gender discrimination and violated Michigan's civil-rights laws and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The defendants moved to dismiss, asserting the First Amendment's ministerial exception. The district court granted the motion.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed. It relied on its decision in Hollins v. Methodist Healthcare, Inc., 474 F.3d 223 (6th Cir. 2007), where it held that for the ministerial exception to bar an employment-discrimination claim, "the employer must be a religious institution and the employee must have been a ministerial employee." The court determined that InterVarsity was a religious group because its purpose was to "advance the understanding and practice of Christianity." The Sixth Circuit also relied on the Supreme Court's decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012), which identified four factors that can establish an employee's "minister" status: "[1] the formal title given by the church, [2] the substance reflected in that title, [3] her own use of that title, and [4] the important religious functions she performed for the church." The Sixth Circuit found that factors one and four existed in the present case and that the ministerial exception "clearly" applied.

In rejecting the plaintiff's argument that the defendants waived the ministerial exception, the Sixth Circuit held that the "ministerial exception is a structural limitation imposed on the government by the Religion Clauses," a limitation that prohibits state and federal governments from interfering with religious leadership matters. Thus, it can never be waived. The Sixth Circuit also noted that even if the ministerial exception was not recognized under Michigan law, because the First Amendment's Religion Clauses apply to states through the Fourteenth Amendment, a violation of the First Amendment by any Michigan statute, as applied, will be defeated by this federal right.

Finally, the Sixth Circuit held that individual supervisors could not be held liable under Michigan law because "holding the individual decision maker liable for the very employment decision for which the organization cannot be held liable would vitiate both the purpose and the effect of the ministerial exception."

For all these reasons, the Sixth Circuit held that the ministerial exception barred both state and federal employment-law claims against all the defendants and affirmed the district court's ruling.

Concurrence: Judge Rogers wrote a concurrence suggesting that InterVarsity could "no more 'agree' to have Title VII extend to claims by the ministerial exception than an employer can 'agree' to have Title VII apply to a new kind of discrimination." He believed that this inability to expand the scope of statutory causes was enough to reject the plaintiff's waiver argument. Judge Rogers also noted that the decision in the present case did not require the Sixth Circuit to decide whether a religious employer could enter into a "judicially-enforceable employment contract with a ministerial employee not to fire that employee on certain grounds (such as pregnancy)." His belief was that enforcing such an employment contract may interfere with a religious organization's independence from employment laws. Yet if the courts decline to enforce these contracts, religious organizations may not be able to hire the candidates they desire.

Panel: Batchfelder and Rogers, Circuit Judges; Beckwith, District Judge

Date of Issued Opinion: February 5, 2015

Docket Number: 14-1549

Counsel: ARGUED: Katherine Smith Kennedy, PINSKY, SMITH, FAYETTE & Kennedy, LLP, Grand Rapids, Michigan for Appellant. Michelle K. Terry, AMERICAN CENTER FOR LAW & JUSTICE, Franklin, Tennessee, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Katherine Smith Kennedy, PINSKY, SMITH, FAYETTE & Kennedy, LLP, Grand Rapids, Michigan for Appellant. Michelle K. Terry, David A. French, Abigail A. Southerland, AMERICAN CENTER FOR LAW & JUSTICE, Franklin, Tennessee, Edward L. White III, AMERICAN CENTER FOR LAW & JUSTICE , Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Appellees. David A. Cortman, Kevin H. Theriot, ALLIANCE DEFENDING FREEDOM, Lawrenceville, Georgia, David J. Hacker, ALLIANCE DEFENDING FREEDOM, Folsom, California, Kimberlee Wood Colby, CENTER FOR LAW & RELIGIOUS FREEDOM OF THE CHRISTIAN LEGAL SOCIETY, Springfield, Virginia, for Amici Curiae.

Link to full opinion: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/op...s.pdf/15a0021p-06.pdf

Case Alert Author: Daron J. Berman

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mark Cooney

Edited: 02/17/2015 at 12:18 PM by Mark Cooney

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 02/17/2015 11:42 AM     6th Circuit  

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