Religious organizations, including religious schools, generally have the right to choose whomever they like to fill “ministerial” positions. When it comes to people who are acting as religious ministers, the courts are generally required to stay out of any disputes.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone employed by a religious school is there in a ministerial capacity. However, some courts have ruled in the past that teachers are part of the ministry of the school. What about principals?
Furthermore, if a principal indeed counts as a minister, does that mean that the principal has no right to be free from discrimination at all? Could a religious school, for example, allow a culture of harassment based on race that affected the principal’s job? Once the person is hired, can they complain about any non-religion-based discrimination?
The question is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appeals court that covers California. The case involves the former principal of a Sacramento Christian school who worked his way up from assistant principal only to encounter, he claims, “enmity because of his race.”
Reaching out to the Black community
The man was the school’s first African-American assistant principal. He was then promoted to be the school’s first African-American principal. In both roles, he worked to increase admissions from the surrounding Black and Hispanic communities.
In his discrimination lawsuit, the principal describes a pattern of racial harassment and discrimination at the school, which was primarily directed at him. He claims that the school’s president was “displeased” by his efforts to create relationships with the Black and Hispanic communities near the school.
He says that the school’s president had a “hostile attitude towards minorities” that was “on full display during tuition assistance meetings.” He claims the school’s president routinely offered white students more tuition assistance than Black students, and also that he and the other committee members used “crass language” when speaking of minority students and families.
The principal was fired in the middle of the year, causing a stir in the school and the community. Teachers, students and community members protested for weeks.
Complaint dismissed due to ministerial exception
The federal trial court dismissed the principal’s claim because it determined that his work at the religious school was ministerial in nature. Therefore, the religious institution has the right to make any employment decisions it likes. The principal appealed, arguing both that he is not a minister and also that race discrimination would still be illegal even if he were.
Now, the Ninth Circuit must decide who counts as a minister and whether religious institutions can discriminate based on race.
Leigh Law Group represents employees of schools and other employers throughout California.