Religious institutions in Kentucky may hire and fire people from strictly ecclesiastical jobs as they see fit, but could face legal action if an employment contract is involved, the Kentucky Supreme Court recently ruled.
In two decisions, the justices reinstated lawsuits brought by two former staff members at the Lexington Theological Seminary. In both cases, Chief Justice John D. Minton concluded that the staff members had employment contracts with the school and should be able to pursue litigation over their dismissals, even though one of the men held a position that was primarily religious in nature.
Minton concluded that without the contracts, the seminary would be allowed to dismiss former professors Laurence H. Kant and Jimmy Kirby under what is known as the “ministerial exception” to labor laws. The exception allows religious institutions to make employment decisions based on the institutions beliefs and generally keeps a religious institution from being sued for employment discrimination.
The decisions clarify for the first time the ministerial exception and when it applies in Kentucky and brings the state in line with recent U.S. Supreme Court and federal court rulings on the issue and could impact everything from schools to churches.
“A religious institution may hold beliefs that are discriminatory under a particular anti-discrimination statute and the ministerial exception acts to protect the religious freedom of those institutions no matter how distasteful society may find it or how strong the society interest may be,” Minton wrote.
The decisions came in the cases of Jimmy Kirby, a one-time tenured professor at the seminary who taught Christian social ethics for 15 years, and Laurence H. Kant, who was a tenured professor of religious studies at the seminary. Both men were dismissed in 2009 when the Board of Trustees shrank the size of the faculty because of a souring economy that saw the school’s endowment drop from $25 million to $16 million.
Minton laid out a four-part test involving the person’s title at the religious institution, the substance reflected in that title, the person’s use of the title and the important religious functions performed for the institution.
The justices determined that Kirby is a ministerial employee because of his “extensive involvement” in the Seminary’s mission, religious ceremonies and the subject of Kirby’s teachings. While employed at the Seminary, Kirby participated in chapel services, convocations and other religious events, along with preaching on numerous occasions.
“As a professor at an ecumenical Seminary, instructing on Christian principles, Kirby serves as a representative of the Seminary’s message,” Minton wrote. “Kirby has, on multiple occasions, served as the Seminary’s official representative, ambassador, and voice of the faithful.”
Kirby’s claims against the Seminary aren’t religious in nature, they stem from contract law, and his case should be allowed to go forward, Minton concluded. In this case, the Seminary, by signing a contract with Kirby, voluntarily regulated its own conduct, Minton wrote. Minton did dismiss Kirby’s discrimination complaint against the seminary as barred by the exemption.
“We are not presented with a situation where the government is inappropriately meddling in the selection of who will minister to the congregation,” Minton wrote.
Minton concluded that Kant wasn’t a ministerial employee because his job mainly focused on teaching, not preaching or other activities normally associated with a church.
“The members of the congregation or faith community view a minister as one who is, among other things, the face of the religious institution, permitted to speak for the religious institution, the embodiment of the religious institution’s tenets, and leader of the religious institution’s ritual,” Minton wrote. “Kant did none of these things.”
Both lawsuits now return to Fayette Circuit Court in Lexington for further proceedings.