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Religious Institution Given Autonomy To Remove Employee From Residential Program Under Ministerial Exception
San Francisco Zen Center is the largest Soto Zen Buddhist church in North America. The Center is a religious training institution and offers several different types of programs for individuals interested in learning about and training in Zen Buddhism. Some programs are offered to the general public, while other programs are reserved for those who live full-time at the temple and are part of a residential program. Residents participate in both “formal practice” and “work practice.” Formal practice includes morning and evening meditations, as well as services, tasks, classes, and events. Work practice includes cooking, dishwashing, bathroom cleaning, preparing guest rooms, and participating in ceremonial tasks. Both formal and work practices are necessary parts of the Zen Buddhist practice. Attendance at formal practice and work practice is mandatory.
Alex Behrend learned about the Center by searching online for volunteer opportunities after he suffered serious injuries in a car accident and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Due to his injury, Behrend could not work in his previous career, which made it difficult to afford stable housing. Behrend continued to volunteer and participate in programming as a non-resident. In 2016, Behrend was given one month’s notice of losing his housing and the Center’s head of practice encouraged Behrend to apply for the residential program. Behrend was part of the residential program as a guest student, and later as a Work Practice Apprentice. He received room, board, and a stipend. For his work practice assignment, he checked guests into lodging, handled and processed payments, prepared guest rooms, prepared conference rooms, and event spaces, cleaned and folded laundry, and answered guests’ questions. Later, Behrend was assigned to the kitchen where he cooked and washed dishes.
In September 2018, the Center reassigned Behrend to the maintenance crew, but that work exacerbated his PTSD symptoms and when he sought employment on another work crew, his request was denied. Behrend alleged that the Center’s course of dealing after September 2018, including demanding he moves out in January 2019, was disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He also alleged disparate treatment, failure to engage in the interactive process, failure to provide reasonable accommodation, retaliation, and termination.
The Court noted that state interference with churches and other religious institutions violates the free exercise clause of the Constitution and that this clause protects a religious institution’s autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission. A component of this autonomy is the selection of individuals who play certain key roles. Arising from these principles is the ministerial exception. Under this rule, courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those individuals holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.
The Court found that if an employee is performing “vital religious duties,” they are more likely to hold an important position within the religious institution. Here, Behrend was a Work Practice Apprentice and fulfilled both the formal practice and work practice requirements. He was practicing and training in Soto Zen Buddhism and spent nearly all of his time at the Center involved in the practice of Soto Zen Buddhism. The fact that Behrend did not have a leadership role did not alter the Court’s conclusion that Behrend held an important position because the ministerial exception does not apply only to leaders of the faith. The Court determined that training in both the formal practice and work practice lies at the very core of the mission of the Center. The Court found the residential program was undisputedly part of religious training and therefore implicated the ministerial exception.
The Court found it would be direct interference with a religious institution’s constitutional right to decide matters of faith if it were to command the Center to continue to house and train a particular person in the practice of the faith. The Court granted the Center’s motion for summary judgment.
Alexander Behrend v. San Francisco Zen Center, Inc., et al. (N.D. Cal., Feb. 14, 2023) 2023 WL 1997919.
Note: This case is illustrative of the autonomy that religious institutions and religious schools maintain in making employment decisions that impact employees who serve a ministerial function.