Federal appeals court won’t consider minister’s discrimination claim

Friday, February 12, 1999

The First Amendment bars the judiciary from deciding whether a minister was fired from a Texas Methodist church because of her gender and a complicated pregnancy, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Rev. Pamela Combs, ordained a Baptist minister in the late 1980s, was hired by the bishop of the Methodist Central Texas Conference in 1995 to serve the following year as a minister at First United Methodist Church in Hurst, Texas. Before Combs could have her ordination recognized by the Texas Conference, she gave birth in spring 1996. Because of serious complications, Combs underwent surgery and was hospitalized for extensive rest. When she arrived at First United in June, the pastor and her immediate supervisor told her that her position had been terminated and that she was to leave the premises immediately.

Combs then sued both the Texas Conference and First United under a federal civil rights act that prohibits private and government employers from discriminating against employees based on a number of criteria, including gender and pregnancy. Early last year a federal judge dismissed Combs’ suit against the religious entities, saying that the First Amendment religious-liberty clauses barred judicial review of the church’s termination decision.

Last week a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Combs’ discrimination challenge could not proceed.

“The question before us is whether the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment deprives a federal court of jurisdiction to hear a Title VII employment discrimination suit brought against a church by a member of its clergy, even when the church’s challenged actions are not based on religious doctrine,” wrote Judge W. Eugene Davis for the majority in Combs v. The Central Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Attorneys for Combs had argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Div., v. Smith would permit a Title VII claim against her employers, which are religious institutions. In Smith the high court concluded that the free-exercise clause does not “relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law” violates religious beliefs or practices. Combs thus argued that the church could not use the free-exercise clause as a shield against her discrimination claim, brought under a federal law intended to apply to all.

The 5th Circuit, however, disagreed, saying that Smith concerned individual free-exercise rights, but did not “overturn a century of precedent protecting the church against governmental interference in selecting its ministers.”

“This fundamental right of churches to be free from government interference in their internal management and administration has not been affected by the Supreme Court’s decision in Smith,” Davis wrote. “In short, we cannot conceive how the federal judiciary could determine whether an employment decision concerning a minister was based on legitimate or illegitimate grounds without inserting ourselves into a realm where the Constitution forbids us to tread, the internal management of a church.”