The Denver-based federal appeals court rejected an Arvada church’s argument that religious institutions are entitled to immunity from prosecution for certain employment-related retaliation cases.
In a first-of-its-kind decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, a panel of judges ruled, 2 to 1, that they lacked the capacity to rule on Faith’s appeal Bible Chapel International implying the “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws. The effect of the ruling is to allow Gregory Tucker’s lawsuit to proceed against his former employer, Faith Bible, and his religious school, Faith Christian Academy.
Tucker’s defenders hailed the ruling on Tuesday, calling it a necessary pushback on the practice of religious employers labeling their workers as religious leaders to avoid liability for employment discrimination.
“This reduction in our key civil rights protections cannot continue. This is a very big problem,” said Sunu P. Chandy, legal director of the National Women’s Law Center, who filed a brief supporting Tucker on behalf of about three dozen civil and legal rights groups.
Lawyers for Faith Bible did not rule out an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and called the legal protections of the church’s decision to end Tucker “very strong.”
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that courts should not question a religious school’s decision about who teaches religion to its students,” said attorney Daniel H. Blomberg of the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom. “Today’s opinion also appears sharply at odds with rulings by other federal appeals courts and state supreme courts. We are reviewing the decision and will plan next steps in consultation with Faith Bible Chapel.”
Although Faith Bible’s appeal focused primarily on issues of legal process, central to the case is whether Tucker could sue the church and its religious school for retaliation, or whether the institutions are protected. by legal doctrine protecting personal decisions of a religious nature from government interference. The ministerial exception, as it is called, prevents civil liability under employment discrimination laws for employees in the “minister” category.
A key question for the 10th Circuit was whether the ministerial exception is merely a defense that a religious institution can invoke to justify its actions, or whether it functions as a qualified immunity for government employees. Faith Bible insisted the latter is true, and the 10th Circuit must rule that Tucker met the criteria for a minister in order to end the trial entirely.
“We reject this argument because Faith Christian is wrong to say that the ‘ministerial exception’ immunizes a religious employer from suits for discrimination in employment,” Senior Judge David M. Ebel wrote in the majority opinion of the June 7.
According to his lawsuit, Tucker worked for Faith Christian Academy for 14 years between 2000 and 2018, teaching science classes as well as world religions. None of his classes would have involved teaching the Bible. In 2014, the high school named him director of student life, involving the organization of weekly “chapel” meetings, which he referred to as school assemblies.
Apparently Tucker, who is white, observed racism among the student body. He learned of comments calling Tucker a “father (N-word)”, in reference to his black adopted daughter. In January 2018, Tucker hosted a symposium titled “Race and Faith.” Although he received supportive comments for the anti-racism event before and immediately after, some students and parents reportedly complained later.
The school relieved Tucker of his duties and title of principal, then fired him soon after.
Tucker sued Faith Bible, alleging a violation of Title VII, the federal civil rights law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, gender and other protected characteristics. The church invoked the ministerial exception and pointed to several pieces of evidence that Tucker was a religious leader: He had an agreement with the school in which his title was “chaplain.” He introduced himself as a chaplain. The teacher’s manual stated that teachers “join this ministry, not as employees, but as ministers.”
Tucker presented evidence to the contrary suggesting he was not a minister, including a conversation he had with the school superintendent where he allegedly asked if he qualified for a tax deduction offered to ministers. The superintendent replied that Tucker was not a minister.
In May 2020, Senior United States District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson considered whether to grant summary judgment to Faith Bible. Summary judgment allows a judge to decide the case solely on the basis of the law if there is no dispute about the relevant facts. Jackson decided he could not end the case in favor of the church because Tucker’s status was unclear.
“The defendant’s position is essentially based on the wording of the documents, including the extension agreement which characterizes Mr. Tucker as ‘chaplain’ and the manual which purports to make all teachers and other full-time employees ‘ministers'” , Jackson wrote. “But the substance of Mr. Tucker’s position depends on the totality of the facts and circumstances of his employment, and he presented facts which, if believed by the jury, could rationally support the opposite conclusion.”
Faith Bible has filed an interlocutory, or interim, appeal with the 10th Circuit. In addition to arguing that Jackson wrongly decided the Tucker status issue, Faith Bible also had to overcome a procedural hurdle. He had to justify why the 10th Circuit should deviate from its usual practice and rule on the interlocutory appeal, given that Jackson’s order was not a final decision ending the case.
The church has attempted to sway the 10th Circuit by suggesting that the ministerial exception, which insulates religious institutions from government interference under the First Amendment, is akin to qualified immunity, a concept available exclusively to government actors. Qualified immunity blocks civil liability claims against police and other public officials, except for violation of a clearly established legal right. Lower court rulings on qualified immunity fall into the category of acceptable interlocutory appeals.
In oral argument last year, the 10th Circuit panel was skeptical of the legal comparison between ministerial exception and qualified immunity.
“The Supreme Court told us not to expand the concept of an interlocutory appeal,” said Justice Carolyn B. McHugh. She added that qualified immunity exists to prevent civil suits from interfering with government operations and deterring people from taking public sector jobs out of fear. of responsibility.
“It’s a very different situation,” McHugh said.
Several outside organizations have submitted briefs to the 10th Circuit. Tucker’s supporters argued that if the court granted the ministerial exception for Faith Bible, it would incentivize religious institutions to categorize every employee as a religious leader. In this scenario, people of color, LGBTQ employees and workers with disabilities would have little recourse for violations of their civil rights, the groups argued.
Faith Bible has also received support from several religious institutions and constitutional law scholars, who have highlighted the need for faith-based organizations to hire and fire workers based on the requirements of specific religious doctrines.
“Without the protection of immunity, religious schools are forced to make choices with no acceptable outcome: retain religiously antagonistic staff to avoid the cost of litigation, or preserve religious identity but risk putting the school in bankruptcy with legal fees,” attorney Christian Poland wrote on behalf of the Association of Christian Schools International and the Colorado Catholic Conference.
Ebel, writing for himself and McHugh, dismissed Faith Bible’s two procedural arguments, holding that an interlocutory appeal was not appropriate in the case and that the ministerial exception did not provide immunity from lawsuits.
“Furthermore, the reason the Supreme Court allows immediate appeals against the denial of qualified immunity is to protect, not individual government officials, but rather the public interest in a functioning government,” wrote Ebel. “This public interest is not present when a private religious employer seeks to avoid Title VII liability for employment discrimination claims.”
He added that, notwithstanding the ministerial exception, religious employers are not largely immune from civil rights laws and that to hold otherwise “would place a religious employer above the law.”
Justice Robert E. Bacharach, writing in dissent, found that the ministerial exception actually acted to block employment discrimination suits involving religious leaders. He chose to reassess whether Tucker was a minister under the law using criteria established by the Supreme Court, including Tucker’s title, job responsibilities and how he presented himself professionally.
“Based on all of the circumstances, I would conclude that the undisputed facts show that Mr. Tucker acted as minister in his capacity as Director of Student Life/Chaplain,” Bacharach wrote.
Michael Francisco, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who filed a brief in support of the church on behalf of religious liberty scholars, said he hoped the 10th Circuit’s ruling would be upheld. further consideration by the court.
“This is not a close or hard case. I don’t know of any other court that hasn’t found such an overtly religious employee (someone who admits to serving as a chaplain) to qualify for the ministerial exception,” he said.
The deal is Tucker v. Faith Bible Chapel International.