Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

Sixth Circuit to Decide How Much Autonomy Churches Have

(File photo: Nick Oxford/Reuters)

Can an ordained minister dodge the First Amendment’s rule against ministers suing their churches by simply slapping a new label on the same facts? That’s the question facing the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals next week in Middleton v. United Church of Christ Board.

The Reverend Waltrina Middleton, an ordained United Church of Christ minister working at the denominational level, sued her church after she was let go from her leadership position planning nationwide religious youth events. The church argued that the claim was barred under the ministerial exception, a First Amendment doctrine that forbids federal judges from deciding employment disputes between churches and their ministers. The ministerial exception was recognized by the Supreme Court in the 2012 case Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC and affirmed in 2020 in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrisey-Berru.

Normally, that would be the end of the case, but Reverend Middleton recast all her Title VII employment-discrimination claims (which she realized were barred) as Title VII hostile-work-environment claims (which she thought might not be), even though the factual underpinnings of both were essentially identical. The move worked. Siding with the Ninth Circuit and apparently unaware of contrary Sixth Circuit precedent, the district court held that the ministerial exception applied to only some Title VII claims — and not to any hostile-work-environment claims.

But the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion has been widely decried for decades because, in the words of dissenting circuit judges, it “undermines over a century of Supreme Court jurisprudence, runs contrary to every other [federal] Court of Appeals that has had occasion to visit the issue,” and “narrows the ministerial exception nearly to the point of extinction.”

If anything, hostile-work-environment claims are worse than the mine-run Title VII claims that everyone agrees are barred, since they open the entire employment relationship between a church and its ministers to pervasive government examination and control. For that reason, the Seventh and Tenth Circuits have found that Title VII hostile-work-environment claims are barred, and the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits have said the same about all Title VII claims, period. As particularly relevant here, the Sixth Circuit agrees with the Fifth and Eleventh, which it reaffirmed most recently in a 2015 decision.

The district court ultimately ruled for the church on other grounds, and Reverend Middleton appealed. Our law firm, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, filed an amicus supporting the church on behalf of Agudath Israel and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, asking the Sixth Circuit to correct the district court’s mistaken ministerial-exception ruling.

The Sixth Circuit panel deciding the case has set the case for submission on the briefing next week. And the panel will not be alone in considering this important issue. There are already cases concerning the intersection of hostile-work-environment claims and the ministerial exception pending before the Third Circuit and the en banc Seventh Circuit. Apparently, many plaintiffs’ lawyers are trying to relabel employment disputes against churches in order to get around the First Amendment. Here’s hoping the courts will not allow the wool to be pulled over their eyes.

Adèle Keim and Daniel Blomberg are attorneys for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

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