Fundamental to the constitutional rights of every citizen of the United States is the First Amendment right to freely exercise religious beliefs without court intervention. A product of this fundamental right is the right of a religious organization to hire and fire clergy without court intervention. Therefore, employment decisions concerning selection, hiring and firing of clergy type employees have been insulated from attacks in court. This is a powerful tool for religious organizations in that it protects the decision-making process from possible judicial second guessing as to who is fit to minister to a church’s parishioners.
What is surprising about the scope of this principle of law (often termed the “ministerial exception”) is that it does not solely apply to ordained ministers, or other ordained type clergy. Rather, courts have applied this First Amendment protection to employment decision concerning employees whose job duties include advancing a religious organization’s ideals and principles. By way of example, terminated school principals and choir directors, whose duties included advancing religious organizations’ beliefs, have been precluded from suing their religious employer for alleged wrongful termination. What is important for religious organizations to understand is who does, and who does not constitute clergy so that a religious organization making employment decisions can understand when their employment decisions will be protected by the First Amendment.