A Philosopher's Blog

Church & State: Defining “Religious Employee”

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on May 4, 2012
Steeple of St. James Catholic Church in Chicag...

Steeple of St. James Catholic Church in Chicago, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous post I discussed the moral acceptability of the ministerial exception. I now turn to the matter of the legitimate extent of this exception. This discussion assumes, solely for the sake of the argument, that the exception is morally acceptable and the main concern is defining what counts as a “religious employee.” This matter is important because the ministerial exception in United States law allows for religious employers to fire religious employees and not be subject to the usual anti-discrimination laws. To be clear, in this context being religious does not mean simply having faith. Rather, a religious employer is one that is defined by a religious function, such as a church. A religious employee is one that is, presumably, hired to perform a job that has religious components. A clear example of this would be being a priest or minister.

The specific case that motivated my discussion of the issue is that of Emily Herx, who claims that she was fired because of her using in vitro fertilization. Her former employer, the Catholic Church, claims that they have the right to fire employees who violate the religious doctrines of the Catholic Church. Herx’s attorney has contended that the church  violated the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In order to legitimately use the ministerial exception rule, the person who is fired must be a religious employee (in the sense defined above) and s/he must be fired for violating the religious doctrines of the religious employer (as defined above). In this specific case, it is clear that Herx violated church doctrine of her employer, which is clearly a religious institution. The Catholic Church officially opposes IVF on numerous grounds, but most especially on the fact that it can result in the destruction of “extra” fertilized embryos. Whether or not someone violates doctrine is general a straightforward factual matter, although there can be exceptions (after all doctrines can be vague, ambiguous and otherwise problematic). As noted above, it is being assumed that religious institutions have the moral right to fire religious employees based on matters of doctrine. Whether or not this is actually the case was discussed previously.

The main point of concern is, of course, what counts as being a religious employee. There is also the specific concern of whether or not Herx should be considered a religious employee.

To begin with the easy and obvious cases, people who are employed in jobs that serve clear and obvious religious roles and functions within the religious parts of the religious  institution itself would be religious employees. To use an obvious example, the pope, bishops, priests, ministers, monks, rabbis, and so on would all be religious employees. In such cases, religion is central to the jobs and defines the primary responsibilities and roles of said jobs. People occupying these jobs would thus be paradigm cases of religious employees. Given the centrality and importance of these roles, it would thus seem reasonable to expect that those occupying them would be following the religious doctrines. So, for example, if a priest was engaged in sexual relations with young men and thus violating church doctrine, it would be morally reasonable for the Catholic Church to fire him.

As might be imagined, things begin to get a bit fuzzy when one moves away from these paradigm cases. For example, an organist who is paid to play the organ in a church for services is involved in the religious rituals to the degree that s/he provides the organ music. However, it is not clear that s/he would be a religious employee. After all, the role of playing an organ does not seem to be inherently religious nor does it seem to specifically require a religious person. After all, music played by an atheist cannot be discerned by that played by a theist (or even a computer playing the organ).  As another example, consider a janitor who cleans a church. While s/he is cleaning a church, it would be somewhat odd to consider the janitor a religious employee. After all, cleaning the church is  not a religious function nor does it seem to require  a specific faith. To use an analogy, the person who cleans the professors’ offices at a university is not performing an academic function nor does this task seem to require holding an academic degree in the fields corresponding to the departments of the offices the janitor is cleaning. The same would also seem to hold true for the majority of employees who perform non-religious tasks such as accounting, maintenance and so on.

Religious institutions are not just limited to explicitly religious edifices such as churches. After all, religious institutions also include schools, hospitals and so on under their auspices. In these cases, the lack of religious roles seems clearly evident. For example, a doctor at a hospital owned by the Catholic Church is a doctor and her job requires medical rather than theological skills. It would thus be odd to say that a doctor would be a religious employee. Likewise for the nurses, ambulance drivers, janitors and so on.

It might be contended that religious affiliated schools, such as the school were Herx taught, provide a special context in which teachers are religious employees. However, the obvious counter is that they would be religious employees only to the degree that their core job functions are religious in nature. As such, someone teaching church doctrine (and not merely religion classes) could be seen as a religious employee. However, those teaching all other subjects (such as math or English) would seem to not have religion as part of their core job function and hence would not be religious employees. Going back to my janitor analogy, a janitor who works at a university would not thus be an academic employee with academic duties. Likewise, a teacher who just teaches math at a religious school would have math duties but not religious duties (as a math teacher).

There is also the fact that in the United States religiously affiliated schools and institutions routinely hire people not of their faith to fill various jobs. For example, a Catholic hospital might have a Methodist doctor, a Jewish nurse, an Episcopalian lawyer and perhaps even an atheist accountant. As such it would seem somewhat odd to say that these employees are religious employees whose job functions are religious in nature merely because they work for a hospital affiliated with the Catholic Church.

It could be objected that employees of religious institutions are involved with the religion and thus are religious employees. For example, it could be argued that teachers at Catholic schools (even if they are not Catholic) have among their duties the teaching of Catholic doctrine and conveying Catholic values. As such, they are religious employees even if their actual  job is to teach mathematics or English literature. Naturally, if the teaching duties specify a religious function that is relevant to the job, then this could be reasonable grounds for considering the employee a religious employee. However, most such jobs would seem to have no direct religious role and hence the employees would not be religious employees.  For example, requiring a calculus teacher to teach Catholic doctrine in calculus class would be rather odd.

It could be countered that religious institutions are such that every employee is a religious employee. To use an analogy, every employee of the state is thus a state employee. As such, religious institutions can fire people with impunity as long as they can justify it by an appeal to religious doctrine.

While this might be appealing to some, that view seems unjustifiably broad. After all, the intent of the ministerial exception is to allow exception for specific religious jobs on the basis of religious liberty. To take every employee as a religious employee is to simply grant religious institutions a free pass to ignore anti-discrimination laws in a way that is unwarranted. After all, this would be using a rule intended to grant a limited exception for religious liberty to allow the violation of rights and liberties broadly on no better basis than the employee was not conforming to the doctrines of the church. While, as noted above, this would be reasonable for priests it seems unwarranted in the case of janitors, doctors, math teachers and so on.

From both a legal and  a moral standpoint it seems rather critical for there to be a clear and reasonable definition of “religious employee.” Without such a definition, it is all to easy to violate the rights of employees under the guise of protecting religious liberty.



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8 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on May 4, 2012 at 10:31 am

    If you are a teacher, and you make a porn movie in your spare time, you can be fired. Why? Because your behavior does not reflect the values of your institution. The exact same situation applies here. Similarly, there are some jobs at which you can be fired for smoking even if you are not at work. As long as the employeer clearly states that these behavior guidelines are a condition of employment, I frankly don’t see that there is a problem. This is not an issue of race-, age-, or disability-based discrimination.

    • dhammett said, on May 4, 2012 at 2:11 pm

      You say “can be fired”. Is there any leeway in the word “can”?

      I don’t wish to muddy the waters by pushing a hot button here, but if you were a member of the Catholic Church and a bishop or priest repeatedly raped or molested one or more of his charges ^ inside ^ the church itself, would that, in your estimation be a “can”, “may” or “will” dismissal circumstance? Would your opinion change if the victim were your son?

      Or , perhaps. it should be a “can”, “may”, or “must” reassign circumstance?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 4, 2012 at 6:21 pm

      Actually, I think I can make porn movies in my spare time without being fired, provided that I filled out the forms for having a second job while teaching. In the summer, when I am off contract, I am completely free and limited pretty much just by the law.

      While some employers do fire people for smoking off the job, I did argue against that as well. The only time this would be warranted would be when the smoking impacted the ability to do the job (which it could by impeding health to the point at which the employee could not function properly).

      As I see it, the only morally justifiable conditions are those that directly impact on the job. These can include matters of professionalism, but my private behavior off work that does not harm others is no business of the state or my employer.

      I’m consistent about liberty in that I do not think that an employer should have more power to impose than the state does and I think that the state should operate within strict limits when it comes to such impositions. I’ve argued for this view a great deal in various posts here.

      • T. J. Babson said, on May 4, 2012 at 8:52 pm

        “As I see it, the only morally justifiable conditions are those that directly impact on the job.”

        Mike, you are forgetting that employees are in some sense representatives of their employers. That is why the behavior of a few soldiers in Abu Ghraib reflected poorly on the U.S. Army, etc.

        Here is an example of a Florida teacher teacher who was recently fired:

        Sean Loftis, a Florida substitute teacher who starred in gay porn films, under the psudeoname Collin O’Neal, has lost his teaching job after his X-Rated antics came to light.

        Loftis, who also found fame as a CNN iReporter, was suspended from his Florida teaching post, after claims that he had violated a regulation requiring faculty members to act in a manner “that will reflect credit upon themselves”.

        Loftis filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), but thus far has failed to get back in the classroom.


        Here is another example:

        OXNARD, Calif. — A Southern California junior high teacher fired for performing in a pornographic video before she was hired is planning to fight her dismissal.

        An attorney for 32-year-old Stacie Halas said Friday that she will “vigorously contest” the allegations against her.

        Oxnard School District trustees voted Wednesday night to fire Halas, who taught seventh and eighth grade science at Richard B. Haydock Intermediate School.

        She had been on paid administrative leave since her appearance on the video surfaced last month. Superintendent Jeff Chancer said her return to class would be disruptive.

        Halas has 30 days to appeal the decision by requesting a hearing with an administrative law judge.


  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on May 5, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    Have you ever seen a LifeWay Christian Bookstore? These are owned and operated by the Southern Baptist Convention. As such they are not required to hire gays, or straits who are living in sin, or people who smoke, and they say so on their employment applications. The clear definition of who a religious employee is is what does it say in the employer section of your paycheck. When I worked at Barnes and Nobel there was a LifeWay across the street from us. B&N hired anybody and had benefits for employees who were living together (gay or strait) or in a gay marriage.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 7, 2012 at 3:44 pm

      On the one hand, if the bookstore is an integral part of the church and is providing religious services, then it would be acceptable for them to engage in such discrimination within the context of religious liberty. I would still see this as morally dubious-after all, it seems to warrant what would normally be unethical, namely discrimination.
      On the other hand, if they are just selling books in a store owned by a church, then they have entered the business world and should, on the principle of consistent application, be subject to the same laws as everyone else.

  3. dhammett said, on May 5, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    Flogging a dead horse here, but the Catholic Church “hires” certain individuals to perform many important duties. They “say the Divine Office each day, celebrate mass each day (if possible), baptise, preside at marriages, anoint the sick and the dying, take funerals, proclaim the Gospel, have regular times of mental prayer, hear confessions, visit the house-bound and other members of the parish, take an active part in the church school (if there is one) by taking classes and assemblies and being present at Governors’ meetings. He is also meant to organise and take part in classes for those who want to join the Catholic Church (RCIA). ” (answers.com) Those individuals are priests. Priests receive salaries and, often pensions. Since the Church apparently has ‘not’ historically precluded priests from molesting their charges, does that mean priests should escape punishment for such activities. Was mere reassignment enough?

    Aside: I’d just love to see the job descriptions these jokers wrote for themselves 39 years ago. 😦

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