First Amendment prevents suit against diocese, appeals panel rules

Wednesday, May 24, 2000

A federal appeals court has ruled that the First Amendment bars the judiciary
from considering a sexual discrimination suit against a Catholic diocese in
North Carolina.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had asked the 4th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a district judge's 1999 decision that
prevented a former music minister in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh,
N.C., from proceeding with a gender discrimination claim against the religious

“The functions of the music ministry and music teaching positions in this
case are integral to the spiritual and pastoral mission of Sacred Heart
Cathedral,” the three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit unanimously concluded in
its May 22 decision. “We are thus confronted with a case involving
ecclesiastical decisions that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment
places beyond the ken of civil courts.”

In late 1998, the EEOC filed the suit on behalf of Joyce Austin, the former
director of music ministry at Sacred Heart Cathedral and a part-time teacher at
the church's elementary school, arguing that her dismissal was based on her
gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Congress
created Title VII to prevent employers from discriminating against employees on
the basis of race, religion, gender or national origin. The 4th Circuit, among
several other federal circuits and the U.S. Supreme Court, however, has held
that Title VII includes a “ministerial exception,” which exempts the employment
relationships between religious institutions and their ministers.

Last year, a U.S. district judge upheld the religious exemption, describing
it as well recognized, thus preventing the judiciary from hearing Austin's

The EEOC appealed the ruling, arguing that Austin's positions with the
diocese were not religious in nature and that her duties and functions were
“primarily secular.” The agency made the argument because the Title VII
religious exemption does not cover employment positions within religious
institutions that are “purely custodial or administrative.”

Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, writing for the 4th Circuit panel in
EEOC v. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, said the
Title VII exemption was a valid and “constitutionally compelled” government
accommodation of religion and that Austin's musical duties for the Catholic
diocese were not secular but were indeed religious in nature.

The Title VII religious exemption “ensures that no branch of secular
government trespasses on the most spiritually intimate grounds of a religious
community's existence,” Wilkinson wrote.

Federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have “repeatedly emphasized the
constitutional imperative of governmental non-interference with the ministerial
employment decisions of churches,” Wilkinson continued. “Moreover, the
ministerial exception is rooted in the independence of the spiritual lives of
the religious bodies in accordance with the dictates of the First

Wilkinson said that the Title VII exemption did not “insulate wholesale the
religious employer form the operation of federal anti-discrimination statutes.”
Wilkinson said the exemption only covers those positions that involve “spiritual

“The general rule is that if the employee's primary duties consist of
teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious
order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship, he or
she should be considered clergy,” Wilkinson wrote.

Wilkinson said the EEOC erred in describing Austin's duties, which included
the planning of church services, the management of parish choirs and teaching at
the school, as secular.

“The music ministry and teaching positions at issue are ministerial because
the positions are important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the
church,” Wilkinson said. “The functions of the positions are bound up in the
selection, presentation, and teaching of music, which is an integral part of
Catholic worship and belief. The Free Exercise Clause therefore bars
consideration of the instant employment discrimination claims.”

Wilkinson described the case as centering on the “undeniable fact that music
is a vital means of expressing and celebrating those beliefs which a religious
community holds most sacred. We refuse to demote music below other liturgical
forms or to sever it from its spiritual moorings. We cannot say, for example,
that the reading of scripture or the reciting of prayers is any more integral to
religious worship than the singing of hymns or the intonation of chants. Whether
spoken or sung, psalms lift eyes unto the hills. It is not for us to place the
oratorios of Handel, the cantatas of Bach, or the simplest of hymns beneath the
reading of sacred texts from which they draw.”

The 4th Circuit's jurisdiction includes West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and
the Carolinas.

Jim Henderson, a senior attorney for the American Center for Law and Justice,
a law firm dedicated to protecting Christians' religious liberties from
government intrusion, wondered why the EEOC argued that a music minister's
position with a Catholic diocese was secular.

“It seems bizarre that the EEOC would argue that music, which is not just
lyrics and words, but contains a spiritual component, is secular in nature,”
Henderson said. “That argument fails to appreciate the role of song and music in
the order of worship.”

Robert John Gregory, the senior EEOC attorney who argued on behalf of the
agency, said it was likely that the agency would ask the entire 4th Circuit to
rehear the matter.

“The court is absolutely correct that music is important to the Catholic
Church,” Gregory said. “But our argument was that her position was defined in
secular terms and that she did not have much influence in the selecting of
music. It seemed to us that the evidence showed that you did not have to be
Catholic to occupy the position.”

The EEOC has 45 days to file a notice of appeal.