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No Minister! Court Says Reverend Cannot Sue Church over Job Loss

On Tuesday, Justice Charles Ramos of New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled that Rev. Douglas Mills could not invoke his First Amendment rights against a church agency that fired him, as because he was barred by the “ministerial exception.” And that the “ministerial exception” in the First Amendment would be applicable even if the minister performed secular duties.

Ramos reasoned that in fact it would be ‘unconstitutional’ for the court to involve itself in the employment relationship between a religious organization and one of its ministers.

Mills had brought a breach of contract claim against the Standing General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, an agency of the United Methodist Church. However, justice Ramos found that the “ministerial exception” shielded religious institutions from anti-discrimination laws in certain situations, and the instant case merited the exception.

Mills was originally hired by the agency as associate general secretary with a job to promote theological dialogue and interfaith relations. A new general secretary came to office three years after Mills joining the organization. The new general secretary, Stephen Sidorak fired Mills in 2009 on the basis of insubordination and untrustworthiness.

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Mill sued the agency for breach of contract and that he was terminated without just cause six-months before he could be re-elected for another four-year term.

The agency asked for summary judgment on the grounds of “ministerial exception” and its petition was granted with Mills’ case being dismissed.

Even though Mills argued that he had not been employed as a minister and his activities were secular, his arguments were not accepted.

Justice Ramos observed, “Even if Mills performed secular duties, the ministerial exception will apply if his job duties ‘reflected a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission,’” citing the 2012 decision of the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The case is W. Douglas Mills v. Standing General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, New York State Supreme Court, New York County, No. 601640/2009

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