Monday, August 2, 2004
Court: First Amendment Bars Minister’s Disability Discrimination Claim
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
The First Amendment bars an Arizona Methodist minister’s claim that his church illegally refused to accommodate his attention deficit disorder and other disabilities, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
“If [the case were] allowed to proceed, the Church would necessarily be required to provide a religious justification for its failure to accommodate and this is an area into which the First Amendment forbids us to tread,” the court’s per curiam opinion declared.
The three-judge panel distinguished Bollard v. California Province of the Society of Jesus, 196 F.3d 940 (9th Cir. 1999), in which the court allowed a sexual harassment claim by a novice Jesuit priest to survive despite the “ministerial exception” to the applicability of federal civil rights law first articulated in McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir. 1972).
In Bollard, the judges said, the court determined the plaintiff’s claim was “more similar to a negligence claim than a typical…employment discrimination claim” and “did not implicate the employment relationship protected under the ministerial exception.”
“A religious institution’s freedom to choose its representative and related employment matters were not at issue,” the panel added.
Citing McClure, the judges said the ministerial exception “does not apply solely to the hiring and firing of ministers, but also relates to the broader relationship between an organized religious institution and its clergy, termed the ‘lifeblood’ of the religious institution.”
“Although sexual harassment of a novice priest is not a part of that relationship, as determined in Bollard, a minister’s working conditions and the church’s decision regarding whether or not to accommodate a minister’s disability, are a part of the minister’s employment relationship with the church.”
The clergyman who brought the suit, Andrew E. Werft, claimed he was capable of performing his duties despite his ADD, dyslexia, and heart problems, but alleged the church refused to make the necessary accommodations and forced him to resign. A federal judge in Arizona dismissed his lawsuit, which included claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, and state law.
Judges Sidney R. Thomas and Consuelo M. Callahan and Senior Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez explained:
“Bollard itself states that requiring a church to articulate a religious justification for a personnel decision, such as firing a minister, is one…way in which government may not constitutionally interfere with religion….This is the heart of the ministerial exception.”
The case is Werft v. Desert Southwest Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, 03-15545.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company