Earlier today a federal appeals court handed down an important ruling that protects the liberties of religious organizations.

In the case of Alyce Conlon v. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected a plaintiff’s attempt to enforce state and federal gender discrimination laws on one of the nation’s largest Christian campus ministries.

According to the court opinion, Alyce Conlon worked at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA (IVCF) in Michigan as a spiritual director, involved in providing religious counsel and prayer. She informed IVCF that she was contemplating divorce, at which point IVCF put her on paid—and later unpaid—leave. Part of IVCF’s employment policy is that “[w]here there are significant marital issues, [IVCF] encourages employees to seek appropriate help to move towards reconciliation” and IVCF reserves the right “to consider the impact of any separation/divorce on colleagues, students, faculty, and donors.”

When Conlon’s marital situation continued to worsen despite counseling efforts, IVCF terminated her employment. Conlon sued IVCF and her supervisors in federal district court under Title VII and Michigan law. IVCF claimed the First Amendment’s ministerial exception to employment laws.

The Sixth Circuit rejected Conlon’s claims based on conclusions in the Supreme Courts’ ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School (2012). 

In Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court explicitly agreed with the many courts of appeals that had long recognized “the existence of a ‘ministerial exception,’ grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes application of [Title VII and other employment discrimination laws] to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.”

The Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor framed the issue of ministerial exception in a religious-employment lawsuit as “whether the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar such an action when the employer is a religious group and the employee is one of the group’s ministers.” The Supreme Court found that “Both Religion Clauses bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.”

Although IVCF is not a church, the court recognized that as a Christian organization, whose purpose is to advance the understanding and practice of Christianity in colleges and universities, it was a “religious group” under Hosanna-Tabor. 

Though the Supreme Court did not, in Hosanna-Tabor, “adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister,” the Court identified four factors whether a minister was covered by the exception: [1] the formal title given by the church, [2] the substance reflected in that title, [3] the person’s use of that title, and [4] the important religious functions they performed for the church. 

In this case, the court found “spiritual director” conveys a religious—as opposed to secular—meaning and thus was a type of minister.  Additionally, her role was to cultivate “intimacy with God and growth in Christ-like character through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines,” which is ministerial function.

The court also determined that, “The ministerial exception is a structural limitation imposed on the government by the Religion Clauses, a limitation that can never be waived. . . . This constitutional protection is not only a personal one; it is a structural one that categorically prohibits federal and state governments from becoming involved in religious leadership disputes.”

Based on these facts, the court ruled that IVCF’s decision to terminate her employment cannot be challenged under federal or state employment discrimination laws. 

As David French says, “The plaintiff has a right to appeal this ruling — either to seek an en banc review from the entire Sixth Circuit or to seek review from the Supreme Court, so the case may not be over.” 

But, French adds, “for now this case stands as a clear and important precedent, protecting religious institutions of all faiths from government entanglement and intrusion.”