State Court Rules Christian-College Professors Are Not Ministers

"The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that while Gordon College is a religious college, an associate professor of social work at the school is “not a ministerial employee." - TGC

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WallyMorris's picture

This situation is an example of what happens when a Christian college hires a professor who eventually expresses beliefs which contradict what the college believes. Internal discipline or termination of employment will be more difficult in today's social and political environment. Conservative Christian colleges like BJU should be careful.

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

Larry's picture

Moderator

SCOTUS has already ruled on this. Hosanna Tabor was the car, I think. I can't imagine it will stand.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Well, professors are not ministers in the context of their duties at the religious institution of higher learning, so ... there's that.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

WallyMorris's picture

Yes, Tyler, to claim the professor is a "minister" is an attempt to gain "legal cover" for the situation. What we are seeing is attempts by courts to draw legal lines in order to limit 1st Amendment protections. And religious institutions stretching defns in response.

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

Larry's picture

Moderator

Well, professors are not ministers in the context of their duties at the religious institution of higher learning, so ... there's that.

Why not?

The courts have historically (since apparently the early 1800s) given wide latitude to religious institutions to define their own terms (as they should). Hosanna Tabor was a key recent case. Here is a recap of it: https://www.scotusblog.com/2012/01/opinion-recap-a-solid-ministerial-exc...

I would think we would all be troubled by the government deciding who can or cannot be a minister in a religious institution. It should be particularly troubling that the government could force an institution to hire a teacher or maintain a teacher who violates the positions of the institution. There is literally no protection for an educational institution at this point. What would be the difference if the court said that a Baptist church had to hire a Roman Catholic priest? Or could not fire a pastor who had converted to Catholicism? 

Perhaps the question for Tyler and Wally is this: Should a religious school be required to hire or retain teachers who violate the religious convictions of the institution? Should Southern Seminary be required to have a Roman Catholic professor? Should BJU be required to retain a professor who openly affirms homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle? Should Tyler's church be required to hire an Islamic Imam as an co-pastor?  Where would you draw the line?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Larry asked:

I would think we would all be troubled by the government deciding who can or cannot be a minister in a religious institution.

A teacher in a religious institution just is not acting in a pastoral role. It isn't a local church. In the context of his duties at the religious school, he is not clergy. The institution is free to try to litigate otherwise, but I don't envy them the task.

From the decision itself (p. 3):

Her duties as an associate professor of social work differ significantly from cases where the ministerial exception has been applied,as she did not teach religion or religious texts,lead her students in prayer,take students to chapel services or other religious services,deliver sermons at chapel services,or select liturgy,all of which have been important, albeit not dispositive,factors in the Supreme Court's functional analysis.

That pretty much says it all.

It should be particularly troubling that the government could force an institution to hire a teacher or maintain a teacher who violates the positions of the institution.

Government is doing no such thing. You are imputing motives to this court decision that simply are not there. The decision explains:

The Supreme Court has not specifically addressed the significance of the responsibility to integrate religious faith into instruction and scholarship that would otherwise not be considered ministerial. If this integration responsibility is sufficient to render a teacher a minister within the meaning of the exception, the ministerial exception would be significantly expanded beyond those employees currently identified as ministerial by the Supreme Court. The number of employees playing key ministerial roles in religious institutions would be greatly increased. In fact,Gordon has recently attempted to describe all of its faculty, and even all of its employees, as ministers, over the objection of the faculty itself. It is our understanding that the ministerial exception defined by the Supreme Court is more circumscribed.

This is quite reasonable. We may not like the implications of the decision, but it's logic seems good. There is nothing to decry here.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator

A teacher in a religious institution just is not acting in a pastoral role. It isn't a local church. In the context of his duties at the religious school, he is not clergy.

First, the issue here is legal, not theological. While you (or I for that matter) may not consider someone a pastor or minister, another church or institution might. And the courts have historically given that decision to the institution. Hosanna Tabor was 9-0. A more recent case was 7-2. So it isn't even close. So while you might not even the legal task, it is perhaps one of the easier ones to litigate based on legal history and precedent.

Second, I think many professors are acting in pastoral roles in seminaries and Bible colleges. And as I point out below, the ministerial exception is not the same as the clergy issue.

So while you assert they are not ministers, the question is "Why not?" Reasserting the proposition doesn't move us forward with understanding of the claim.

The clergy issue is a legal peg upon which the school tried to hang its hat. I'd be really surprised if the school actually believed its faculty were clergy!

It isn't the clergy issue. It is the ministerial exception which, I think, is broader than clergy. 

This is from a legal resource for ministries: https://www.cwlaw.com/newsletters-40

The ministerial exception is not limited to cases involving churches and to lawsuits brought by clergy. Any "religious group" may assert the ministerial exception defense in employment litigation. For example, the seminal U.S. Supreme Court decision applying the doctrine, Hosanna-Tabor, involved a lawsuit by a teacher at a denomination-affiliated school. Ministry-affiliated hospitals and nursing homes may also invoke the exception in employment litigation. The first step a court will take in determining whether to apply the exception is to consider whether the employer being sued qualifies as a religious group.

The second step is to determine if the worker suing the religious group is a "minister." That is a fact-bound question. Ministry positions are nearly endless in variety, some involving primarily religious tasks and others primarily secular ones. It is fair, if not wholly satisfying, to say that the more a job involves religious duties, the more likely the ministry exception will apply. If preachers are on one end of the spectrum, security guards and groundskeepers are on the other.

I think the questions that would bring clarity to my understanding of your position are the ones I asked above: Should a religious school be required to hire or retain teachers who violate the religious convictions of the institution? Should Southern Seminary be required to have a Roman Catholic professor? Should BJU be required to retain a professor who openly affirms homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle? Should Tyler's church be required to hire an Islamic Imam as an co-pastor?  Where would you draw the line?

 

 

TylerR's picture

Editor

My answers:

  1. Should a religious school be required to hire or retain teachers who violate the religious convictions of the institution? No.
  2. Should Southern Seminary be required to have a Roman Catholic professor? No.
  3. Should BJU be required to retain a professor who openly affirms homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle? No.
  4. Should Tyler's church be required to hire an Islamic Imam as an co-pastor? We hired one last week.

This is a result of pure pluralism, which is what the Constitution enshrines. An overly broad interpretation of "clergy" for the purposes of ministerial exemption might give "nefarious" groups cover to really discriminate. This isn't a Christian nation; it's a pluralist society. This is simply what happens under pluralism - a very uneven balancing act whereby the courts try to interpret the law so as to be fair to everyone, no matter what they believe. The logic in the decision (quoted in my comment, above) is sound, to me.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator
  1. Should a religious school be required to hire or retain teachers who violate the religious convictions of the institution? No.
  2. Should Southern Seminary be required to have a Roman Catholic professor? No.
  3. Should BJU be required to retain a professor who openly affirms homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle? No.

I am not sure what I missed, but this seems contrary to everything you argued above. If I understand correctly, you think Gordon College (a religious institution) should be required to retain a professor who does not adhere to the religious teachings of the college on LGBTQ issues.

So if question #4 was "Should Gordon college be required to retain a professor who openly affirms homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle?" your answer is "Yes" (unless I am misunderstanding you) which is contrary to your answers here. What am I missing?

I am actually for pluralism in a civic sense so no objection there for me.

Government is doing no such thing. You are imputing motives to this court decision that simply are not there.

I didn't say anything about motives. I was speaking of outcomes. The court ruled that the teacher had a valid claim even though she was considered a minister who violated the teachings of the school. The court said that the school acted illegally when terminating this teacher. That had nothing to do with motives on the part of the court.

The Supreme Court has not specifically addressed the significance of the responsibility to integrate religious faith into instruction and scholarship that would otherwise not be considered ministerial.

It is impossible not to integrate religious faith into instruction and scholarship. The Supreme Court has not addressed that, but how would they? That would involve the courts determining what is acceptable religious instruction and acceptable religious positions for a school or person to hold. I think that was at the heart of Scalia's peyote decision which brought a lot of problems with it.

So in contrast, I don't find this reasonable at all. I find not only unreasonable, but unworkable. It would involve the possibility of a school or a teacher going to court every time there was a disagreement about belief. Can you imagine the court trying to render an opinion on Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch or the number of authors responsible for Isaiah? Or the authenticity of 2 Peter? Or the nature of the flood? Or divorce and remarriage? Why is LGBTQ any different?

You might claim those things would never happen. But what is to stop it? They are all religious beliefs. And if a teacher has a valid claim over being fired for religious beliefs on LGBTQ issues, why doesn't a teacher have a valid claim over being fired for Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch?

The logic may be sound, but all kinds of logical things are completely wrong. And I am not convinced the logic is sound.

I think this is a very dangerous ruling and my guess is that a federal court will overturn it with a strong, if not unanimous, majority. We will see, I am sure.

TylerR's picture

Editor

You wrote:

you think Gordon College (a religious institution) should be required to retain a professor who does not adhere to the religious teachings of the college on LGBTQ issues.

I never said that and don't believe that. I simply said the college's argument that this particular faculty member is clergy is ridiculous.

It is impossible not to integrate religious faith into instruction and scholarship.

The excerpt I quoted makes it clear this teacher's duties had little to to do with religious instruction.

Can you imagine the court trying to render an opinion on Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch or the number of authors responsible for Isaiah? Or the authenticity of 2 Peter? Or the nature of the flood? Or divorce and remarriage? Why is LGBTQ any different?

It's different because this case is simply about whether a teacher who doesn't provide religious instruction is clergy. She is not.

You might claim those things would never happen. But what is to stop it?

Actually, some of these things probably will happen.

The logic may be sound, but all kinds of logical things are completely wrong. And I am not convinced the logic is sound.

Read the decision and tell me why.

I think this is a very dangerous ruling and my guess is that a federal court will overturn it with a strong, if not unanimous, majority. We will see, I am sure.

Maybe. Maybe not. I went through a period of shock and despair after the Bostock decision interpreted "sex" from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include gender identity. I'm no longer outraged and angry or alarmist about these things. That doesn't mean I don't care. It means I'm realistic - it's all gonna fall. It's just a matter of time. I can do nothing but preach the Gospel, and try to persuade the folks in my orbit to a biblical way of thinking. There's nothing else I can do.

I'm doing research for a book about sexual confusion in our society by examining relevant Supreme Court decisions, from Roe to Bostock. Along the way, I'll engage with political philosophy and American history in an attempt to bring some clarity for Christians who want to know what to do. I doubt many people will read it, because what sells is populism. But, I have no illusions - it's all falling apart.

I just choose to not live my Christian life through a prism of fear and outrage about our culture. My basic response is, "Yes, it's falling apart. Why are you surprised? What will your outrage accomplish? Let's just do our job, and let God do His."

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator

I never said that and don't believe that. I simply said the college's argument that this particular faculty member is clergy is ridiculous.

If I misunderstood forgive me, but it seems like that was the basis of the whole case. And the claim wasn't that they were clergy but that they were ministers. I think there is a legal distinction there.

The excerpt I quoted makes it clear this teacher's duties had little to to do with religious instruction.

That is a worldview issue. All teaching has a religious nature to it. As the president said (quoted in the article) “[A]t Gordon there are no nonsacred disciplines. . . . Every subject matter that we pursue is informed by, shaped by, the Christian tradition.” Also from the article, "The school’s handbook explicitly states that “faculty members are both educators and ministers to our students.”

Plus what about office counseling and relationships with students that stem from teaching? 

Read the decision and tell me why.

I don't have time to read the whole decision so I will pass on this other than to address the overall tenor, that it is illogical that a court knows better than an institution how to define its employees and the employees know that by virtue of the faculty handbook. This was not sprung on them secretly. They know that they are required to uphold the positions of the university. Further, a court deciding what is and is not religious instruction is very troubling. There certainly are some guidelines here but by and large, I think this is dangerous territory.

It reminds me a bit of cases with college organizations in the past few years where colleges tried to require organizations to be open to anyone including those who disagree with the organization. So a Christian organization could be required to have non-Christian leaders who would be able to decimate the organization and completely change its purpose. 

If a school can't fire someone for teaching something contrary to their position, what can they do?

It means I'm realistic - it's all gonna fall. It's just a matter of time. I can do nothing but preach the Gospel, and try to persuade the folks in my orbit to a biblical way of thinking. There's nothing else I can do. ... I just choose to not live my Christian life through a prism of fear and outrage about our culture. My basic response is, "Yes, it's falling apart. Why are you surprised? What will your outrage accomplish? Let's just do our job, and let God do His."

We can agree on this. I am not panicked about it, but overall I would prefer religious freedom. 

It's hard to imagine that a company can fire (or let go) someone for tweets from years ago but a religious school can't fire someone who denies the religious beliefs of that school. Someone needs to explain that to me not using the idea of hypocrisy or PC.