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What is a minister?


Please read the following four articles:

From Slate     From USA Today     From the University of Virginia      From Deseret News

Now, for the rest of you who didn’t read those articles… a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod school/church fired a teacher.  She is suing under the American Disabilities Act.  Religious bodies have a ministerial exemption from the ADA.  For example, a female cannot sue the Roman Catholic Church because they won’t ordain her as a priest.  Even if her gender is the only barrier to ordination, she still cannot sue because it infringes on the church’s doctrine.  This exemption does not apply to only Christians, but to any religious group.  And now the case is before the United States Supreme Court.

At question – who defines what a minister is; what is a minister; should religious organizations have an exemption?

Interestingly, the Department of Justice is arguing that there should be no exemption clause whatsoever.  Both of the parties in the litigation are against doing away with the exemption clause.  From the Deseret News:  “Both Garnett at Notre Dame Law School, who worked on an amicus brief in support of the school, and Lipper at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who worked on an amicus brief in support of Perich, disagreed with the Department of Justice. Garnett said its arguments are “out of the mainstream of what courts have decided.” Perich said the Department of Justice’s brief “is not protective enough of religious entities and the legitimate religious liberty concerns that motivated the ministerial exception in the first place.”

Whenever the imams, rabbis, and priests are united… and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State are saying that the clause should stay – why in the world is the Department of Justice arguing otherwise?  A digression…

Who defines what a minister is, what is a minister, and should religious organizations have an exemption?  Most argue “yes” for the last question, but what about the other two?

The teacher taught mostly “secular” subjects.  However, she did lead religion classes and led chapel twice a year (according to the Slate article).  Is she a minister?  The courts have rules that the lunch lady and the janitor are not ministers and the pastor is.  But what about those – to borrow a sports phrase – ‘tweeners?  What about your non-ordained, non-rostered, but fully employed youth worker?  What about a non-ordained, but commissioned Youth and Family Minister (an Associate in Ministry, in ELCA vocabulary)?  Is it the degree?  The rostered status?  The work itself?

What is a minister?  This case matters quite a bit for any congregation which has employed staff who in any way lead religious teaching.  I urge you to follow this case, especially if you are in a situation where there are those ‘tweeners.  Are you going to be sued any time soon by them?  I doubt it, and I hope not.  But the decision the Supreme Court makes will affect those folks and the congregations who employ/call people to paid positions in the church where religious teaching is a part of their job duties.

Comment away!






One Comment leave one →
  1. Rachel permalink
    6October2011 22:46

    What about pain and unpaid staff lay ministers? There are so many trails and impacts this decision will have.

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