Sexual Harassment Hostile Work Environment Claim Barred by “Ministerial Exception”

In Montgomery v. St. John’s United Church of Christ, 2023 WL 2820472 (Ohio App. 5 Dist., 2023), the court upheld a lower court decision dismissing, pursuant to the “ministerial exception”, plaintiff’s sexual harassment hostile work environment claim.

From the decision:

The circuits are split on whether the ministerial exception categorically bars courts from considering a minister’s hostile-work-environment claims. See, e.g., Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Par., Calumet City, 3 F.4th 968, 973 (7th Cir. 2021) (en banc) (categorical bar); Skrzypczak, 611 F.3d at 1246 (categorical bar); Elvig, 375 F.3d at 965 (no categorical bar).

The trial court below, after a thorough and well-reasoned analysis, found that the “ministerial exception” to state employment laws prevented it from reviewing the church’s internal disciplinary matters because it could not evaluate or adjudicate the hostile work environment claims without excessively entangling itself in the religious workings of the church and the ecclesiastical domain. The court found that due to the nature of relationships of the parties involved and the subject matter of the conversations and communications between them, it could not “adjudicate the sexual harassment claims of Appellants without distinguishing between Appellee Martin as a parishioner in the congregation seeking counsel, guidance, and comfort from his pastor and pastoral assistant, and Martin as a church officer engaging in harassing or hostile behavior.” (Judgment Entry at 22). The court found that it could not make this distinction or determination without “delving deeply into the relationships and expectations of the parties and their church and their faith.” Id.

We agree that this is precisely the kind of state inquiry into church employment decisions that the First Amendment forbids. Elvig, 375 F.3d at 961–62 (citing Bollard v. Cal. Province of the Soc’y of Jesus, 196 F.3d 940, 946 (9th Cir. 1999)); cf. Rayburn v. Gen. Conf. of Seventh-Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164, 1169 (4th Cir. 1985).

[Cleaned up.]

The court concluded that “the trial court’s determination that the ministerial exception prevents application of a secular review and analysis of such claims in this case without engaging in ‘excessive entanglement’ with the ecclesiastical inner workings of the church was supported by competent, credible evidence” and, therefore, that “the ministerial exception stripped it of jurisdiction to consider their claims that the church had violated state employment laws.”

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