Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate against employees because of race. But when Congress enacted that law, it carved out a "ministerial exception." This means that churches and religious organizations cannot be sued for gender, religious, national origin or racial discrimination. This exception doesn't arise very often, but it arose today, in Rweyemamu v. Cote, resulting in the dismissal of a racial discrimination claim against
Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut.
The ministerial exception exists for a variety of reasons. As the Court of Appeals (Cardamone, Walker and Straub) points out, courts do not want to interfere with the internal workings of religious institutions. This might create excessive entanglement with religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Other courts worry about interfering with the church's autonomy as protected by Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The ministerial exception derives from the common law tradition. Even prior to Title VII's enactment, the ministerial exception has prevented courts from resolving disputes against certain religious entities. As the Second Circuit noted, "Since at least the turn of the century, courts have declined to 'interfere with ecclesiastical hierarchies, church administration, and appointment of clergy.'"
Of course, the ministerial exception does not just protect ministers. Citing cases from around the country, the Second Circuit notes that it has protected music directors, press secretaries, and the staff of a Jewish nursing home. But the Second Circuit rarely has the occasion to apply that exception. In fact, it hasn't applied it at all. Judge Walker states: "This court has had no prior occasion to confirm the existence of the ministerial exception, and rarely an opportunity to discuss its scope."
This is bad news for the plaintiff here, as the Court of Appeals formally affirms the vitality of the ministerial exception in Title VII cases, for a variety of reasons, including the constitutional justifications outlined above. Since the plaintiff -- an ordained priest -- alleges that he was denied a parish administrator's position for racially discriminatory reasons, he must prove that the defendants' articulated reason for this decision was false: "Father Justinian complained to church officials, arguing that Bishop Cote had failed to follow canon law in staffing the vacancies." That would require the Court of Appeals to delve into church doctrine. "Such an argument cannot be heard by us without impermissible entanglement with religious doctrine," the Second Circuit reasons.