New York Court Dismisses Breach of Contract Suit Under Ministerial Exception

In New York’s first application (and extension) of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, a state court has dismissed a wrongful termination law suit filed by an ordained minister of the United States Methodist Church and a former employee of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns (GCCUIC), an arm of the Church devoted to ecumenical work.  The Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church set out the plaintiff’s job responsibilities, which included interfaith dialogue as well as proselytism.  It also stated that those in the plaintiff’s position:

shall be persons who model themselves after the servanthood of Jesus Christ. They shall be persons of genuine Christian character who love the Church and are committed to the oneness of the body of Christ, are morally disciplined and shall uphold the doctrinal and ethical standards of The United Methodist Church as set forth in the Doctrinal Standards and Social Principles, and are competent to administer the affairs of a general agency[.]

The plaintiff was fired, it seems, after a falling out with his superior.  He claimed that he was wrongfully terminated and that Hosanna-Tabor did not apply because his job was secular.  Though the court recognized that Hosanna-Tabor did not extend to breach of contract or tort actions, it disagreed.  Here is a good chunk of the court’s thorough analysis, which engages in very much the sort of particularist methodology laid out in Hosanna-Tabor as necessary to understand the nature of the employee’s position:

Unlike Hosanna-Tabor, it is undisputed that Mills is an ordained minister. He has several years of religious education and held ministerial positions before and after his employment with the GCCUIC. Pursuant to Hosanna-Tabor, the fact of his ordination is relevant to this inquiry. Nonetheless, Mills argues that the ministerial exception does not apply because his job duties with the GCCUIC were wholly secular. For the following reasons, this Court disagrees.

In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court noted it was relevant that “significant religious training and a recognized religious mission underlie the description of the employee’s position” (id. at 708). The GCCUIC required candidates for the Associate General Secretary position be “persons who model themselves after the servanthood of Jesus Christ” with a masters level education in theology, experience with ecumenism and interfaith relations, and “[t]heological acumen.” Therefore, it is evident that the position requires “significant religious training.”

As to whether “a recognized religious mission underlie[s] the description of the employee’s position,” the record indicates that the focus of the Associate General Secretary position is to “promote and further theological dialogue with other Christian Communications and interfaith partners” and to promote the purposes of the GCCUIC. Mills characterizes the purposes of the GCCUIC as “to advocate and work toward the full reception of the gift of Christian unity and to strengthen relationships with other living faith [sic] and to dialogue with persons of other faiths, cultures and ideologies” (Opp. Mem. at 2-3).2 Despite Mills’ arguments to the contrary, these are clearly religious purposes and a “recognized religious mission” underlies his job description.

Similar to the manner in which Hosanna-Tabor “held Perich out” as a minister, the GCCUIC held Mills out as a minister by classifying him as a ministerial employee and designating him as a clergyperson assigned to an “extension ministry.” Mills held himself out as a minister by claiming the housing tax exemption and presenting himself as a minister while conducting official GCCUIC business, and by wearing his collar and ministerial attire during business travel.

Pursuant to Hosanna-Tabor, even if Mills performed primarily secular duties, the ministerial exception will apply if his job duties “reflected a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.” The record indicates that Mills acted as a representative of the GCCUIC and The Methodist Church by participating in ecumenical dialogues with a variety of interfaith organizations and ministries where he “articulat[ed],” communicated, and interpreted the “perspectives positions, traditions” and the history of The United Methodist Church. During the course of his employment, he also wrote and published a variety of ecumenical writings and presentations which he touted as professional accomplishments in at least one performance review with the GCCUIC. On at least one occasion, he performed ministerial duties when he “preach[ed] during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” Given all of these factors, it is clear that Mills had a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.”

Furthermore, adjudication of Mills’ claims would require this Court to interpret various sections of the Book of Discipline, a constitutionally questionable endeavor at best, given the religious nature of the text. Specifically, this Court would be obliged to examine Mills’ behavior and determine whether his termination was justified under paragraph 711 of the Book of Discipline which enumerates reasons that an Associate General Secretary may be terminated. Because New York law does not have legal standards for “immoral conduct” or “breach of trust,” there is no basis in law for this Court to determine whether Mills violated these provisions.

The case is Mills v. Standing General Commission on Christian Unity (No. 601640/2009, Jan. 29, 2013).

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