Friday, May 18, 2012

Why do I need lawyer experienced in representing churches?

Recently, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded a case that the Christian School has won at the trial court.  The facts are fairly simple. Engaged teacher became pregnant and asked the Christian school for maternity leave the following year.  School fired teacher for engaging in extramarital sex. Teacher maintained that she was fired by because she asked for maternity leave. 

The 11th Circuit Court observed that the attorneys representing the Christian school did not adequately raise and brief whether the ministerial exemption could apply to deprive the court of jurisdiction over the dispute.  The ministerial exclusion states that a civil court does not have jurisdiction to decide disputes arising between ministers and their churches.  The ministerial exemption was affirmed in January 2012 in the Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Luther Church and School v. EEOC. This case involved a teacher fired from a Christian school, arguably violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The US Supreme Court unanimously found that the ministerial exemption applied and the court had no jurisdiction over that dispute.

Along the same lines, I recently had a conversation with the Human Resource Director at a mega-church who had extensive HR experience in industry but was new to the religious organization world.  She was questioning my advice that the ministerial exemption might apply to a situation.  She said that she had checked with all her HR contacts through SHRM and none of them had ever heard about the ministerial exemption.  She was questioning my credibility since my advice contradicted all her credible sources. After our conversation, I was able to point her to several credible resources that talked about the ministerial exemption. She learned something new, though she already had years of experience.  Now she is better equipped to handle this issue as it applies in her church.

Without commenting the merits (or lack thereof) of 11th Circuit case or the HR director's SHRM resources, I want to point out that churches, schools and other religious organizations do themselves a great disservice by engaging attorneys and other professionals that do not have extensive experience representing religious organizations. The truth of the matter is that some laws do not apply to some religious organizations. Further complicating the matter, some laws apply only to certain employees of certain religious organizations. These nuances are often missed by attorneys and other professionals who do not have adequate experience practicing with religious organizations.

Religious organizations should ask questions of the attorneys and other professionals they are considering to engage.  Even if the attorney has extensive knowledge and experience in labor law, the church should pass unless that attorney has extensive knowledge and experience with labor law as it applies in a religious organization. Otherwise, the religious organization may have made a costly mistake.


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  3. It would seem unusual for a non-profit to have to need the help of a lawyer, but this is the sort of case that calls for it. Though it does beg the question how much does the law firm charge a non-profit for their help? Maybe the law firm could use it as a tax write off.