Spiritual Director's Sex Bias Claims Barred By Ministerial Exception, Sixth Circuit Affirms

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By Lisa Nagele

Feb. 6 — A spiritual director in Michigan who was fired by an evangelical campus ministry for failing to reconcile her marriage can't proceed with her sex discrimination claims under federal or state law because they are barred by the ministerial exception, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled Feb. 5.

Affirming a district court's dismissal of Alyce Conlon's claims, the Sixth Circuit found that, although InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA isn't a church or other traditional religious organization, its Christian name and mission of Christian ministry qualify it as a religious organization and Conlon performed a ministerial role.

Thus, Conlon's employment discrimination claims are barred by the First Amendment-based ministerial exception, which prevents governmental interference with a religious organization's selection of ministerial staff, the court said.

Addressing the exception for the first time since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694, 114 FEP Cases 129 (2012), the appeals court rejected Conlon's argument that InterVarsity waived the exception through its employment policy prohibiting sex discrimination. Hosanna-Tabor forecloses such waiver, it said.

Discharge for Failing to Reconcile Marriage

InterVarsity described itself as “an evangelical campus mission serving students and faculty on college and university campuses nationwide.” The organization “believes in the sanctity of marriage and desires that all married employees honor their marriage vows.”

According to the court, Conlon began working for InterVarsity in 1986 and served as a spiritual director starting in 2004. As a spiritual director, it said, she was responsible for “assisting others to cultivate ‘intimacy with God and growth in Christ-like character through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines.' ”

In 2011, Conlon and her husband were considering divorce. InterVarsity put her on paid leave to attempt to reconcile her marriage, but when she was unable to do so, she was fired.

Conlon filed a sex discrimination claim, asserting that several similarly situated male employees divorced their spouses while employed by InterVarsity but weren't disciplined. InterVarsity filed a motion to dismiss, asserting the ministerial exemption as an affirmative defense.

Employee Was Minister Under Four-Factor Analysis

In addition to determining that InterVarsity was a religious organization covered by the exception, the appeals court also found that Conlon's role was that of a “minister,” and thus her claims were precluded.

The court examined four factors identified in Hosanna-Tabor to determine whether Conlon was a minister covered by the exception: her formal title, the substance reflected in her job title, her own use of the title and the important religious functions she performed for InterVarsity.

The court found that two out of the four factors were satisfied. Although Conlon's title wasn't “minister,” the word “spiritual” in her title “conveys a religious—as opposed to secular—meaning,” the court found.

Furthermore, her responsibilities of cultivating “intimacy with God” and “growth in Christ-like character” are ministerial functions, the court said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Nagele in Washington at lnagele@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

The opinion is at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/ALYCE_T_CONLON_PlaintiffAppellant_v_INTERVARSITY_CHRISTIAN_FELLOW.