Court Determines The Ministerial Exception Is A Fact-Intensive Inquiry And Should Be Decided By Jury

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Apr 28, 2023

Faith Christian Academy is a Christian school in Colorado offering Bible-based education from kindergarten through high school. Both students and staff come from a wide array of religious perspectives. Gregg Tucker, a white male, began teaching high school at the School in 2000. Later, he taught courses on “Leadership” and “Worldviews, and World Religions.” In 2014, the School hired Tucker for the additional job of chaplain, a position also referred to as the Director of Student Life. In 2017, Tucker was assigned the additional task of planning the School’s weekly “Chapel Meetings.” In January 2018, Tucker conducted a chapel meeting, which he called a symposium, on race and faith. Although the School initially praised Tucker on the presentation, the presentation was not well received by some parents and students, who threatened to pull their students and tuition dollars from the school. This prompted the School to fire Tucker.

Tucker filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), who issued Tucker a right-to-sue letter. Tucker sued the School, alleging that the School fired him in retaliation for opposing a racially hostile environment under Title VII, and alleging wrongful termination in violation of public policy under Colorado common law.

The School moved to dismiss the action under the ministerial exception, which bars the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers. The trial court ruled that the determination of whether Tucker qualified as a minister is disputed and must be decided by a jury. The School immediately appealed.

The question on appeal was whether a decision denying a religious employer summary judgment on a ministerial exception defense is an immediately appealable final order. Appeals courts are typically allowed to assess final decisions handed down by trial courts and decisions are final if they end the case. Collateral orders are an exception to this rule. Collateral orders are opinions that do not end a case but can be treated as final and can be appealed immediately. To be immediately appealable as a collateral order, the order must conclusively determine a disputed question, resolve an important issue completely separate from the action’s merits, and be effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment.

The Court of Appeals determined that this order was not an immediately appealable final order. The Court of Appeals noted that the determination of whether an employer is a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception is a fact-intensive inquiry that is based on the specific circumstances of a given case. Because there are genuinely disputed fact questions, the limited benefits of immediate appeal are outweighed by the costs of disrupting the ordinary course of litigation. Trial judges and juries are better equipped to resolve this type of factual dispute. The Court of Appeals dismissed the School’s appeal.

The School then challenged the Court of Appeals’ decision by petitioning the Court of Appeals for a rehearing on the issue. In a divided ruling, a majority of the Court of Appeals panel found that the underlying decision was correctly decided and denied the immediate appeal. The dissenting members of the panel said that the ministerial exception should have blocked the litigation from the outset.

The School has now petitioned the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue.

Tucker v. Faith Bible Chapel International (10th Cir. 2022) 53 F.4th 620; Tucker v. Faith Bible Chapel International (10th Cir. 2022) 36 F.4th 1021.

Note: LCW will monitor this case for future developments. This case is important because it will determine whether a determination that the ministerial exception applies is immediately appealable. If it is, this will give judges more discretion to rule on these matters without the need for a lengthy jury trial.

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