Church’s religious liberty not violated by employment law, court rules

Wednesday, June 9, 1999

A church in Oregon must contribute to the state unemployment-compensation system after firing a minister, regardless of its argument that the law violates its First Amendment religious liberties, the state’s appeals court has ruled.

Since 1994 the Newport Church of the Nazarene has fought the state employment department’s decision to award unemployment benefits to Gordon R. Hensley, who was fired by the church in 1993. The church had employed Hensley as a youth minister for about eight months. The state employment department awarded Hensley benefits after investigating the reasons for his discharge. Oregon’s unemployment-compensation law, unlike most states’, includes ministerial employment.

Last week the Oregon Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with a lower court ruling that upheld Hensley’s benefits. In doing so the court ruled that the unemployment law did not unconstitutionally infringe on the church’s religious liberties.

Before the appeals court the church’s attorney, Kelly E. Ford, argued that the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment barred the state from inquiring into the reasons behind Hensley’s discharge.

“Essentially, Church’s argument concerns its right to decide, free from state intervention, whether a spiritual leader adequately performed the ministerial function,” Judge Paul J. De Muniz wrote for the court in Newport Church of the Nazarene v. Hensley. “That right derives from the more general right of church autonomy,” which he said was a principle recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court. De Muniz continued that “the unfettered ability to choose and control a minister goes to the heart of a religious organization’s ability freely to practice its faith. That is so because a minister is the living symbol of a religious group’s doctrine, and, as such, exercises its faith with each ministerial act.”

Despite recognizing the importance of the church’s autonomy for controlling its ministers, the appeals court ruled that the burden of the state unemployment law was not great enough to amount to a violation of the free-exercise clause.

“Here, even by including ministers in the unemployment compensation system, a church retains substantial discretion to choose and control its ministers,” De Muniz wrote. “That is so because, despite the outcome of the benefits process, the Department has no authority in any case to change or modify a church’s discharge decision. In the absence of direct coercion, Church’s claimed right to free exercise is best described as concerning generally its right to remain free of any requirement that it explain to the state its ministerial employment decisions.

“We agree that such an explanation is offensive to principles of church autonomy,” De Muniz continued. “However, because the inquiry does not by itself have the power to change a church’s decision as to a minister’s work status, it is in that sense reasonably characterized as an incidental burden on Church’s free exercise rights. Because the intrusion upon church autonomy is sufficiently attenuated, and the state’s interest in providing for the economic security of all Oregonians is sufficiently strong,” the church’s challenge to the unemployment system fails, he wrote

The church’s attorney told The Oregonian of Portland that the decision would be appealed.