Thursday, June 14, 2007

Maryland Permits Church Organist to Continue Lawsuit

I have written a lot about Archdiocese of Washington v. Moerson. Here is a summary I wrote more than a year ago:

In Moerson, the Circuit Court and Court of Special Appeals issued conflicting decisions on whether the "ministerial exception" to Maryland's employment laws applies to an organist's claim against his former employer.

According to established precedent (Presbyterian Church v. Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church), the "free exercise" clauses to the United States and Maryland Constitutions create a zone of autonomy for religious organizations. The church autonomy doctrine deprives civil court of subject matter jurisdiction to review matters involving church governance and doctrine. However, the First Amendment is no impediment to a civil court's jurisdiction when it can resolve a Church's conflict by "neutral principles of law" without examining its religious doctrine (Maryland and Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc.).

As applied to statutory or common law employment claims, the church autonomy doctrine bars a civil court from reviewing a church's employment decisions regarding its ministers (hence, the phrase "ministerial exception."). This is so because the "perpetuation of a church's existence may depend upon those whom it selects to preach its values, teach its message and interpret its doctrines both to its own membership and to the world at large." (Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists). But when a matter does not involve a minister, a civil court may resolve employment disputes, even if they are within a Church, if the
employee provides a purely secular service for the church (as in the 1982 decision EEOC v. Pacific Press Publ'g Ass'n, when the Civil Rights Act was applied to an editorial secretary in a church publishing house). Defining the line between ministerial and secular is often the issue in these cases as it is in Moerson.

Today, in a 4-3 decision, the Court ruled that Mr. Moerson is not a ministerial employee ruling that he merely accompanied relgious services.