The designation of someone as a “minister” of any particular religious faith or organization triggers important legal consequences, including First Amendment protections for the organization who hires the minister. But what is a “minister,” and more importantly, who gets to decide that question – the faith group the minister serves, or the government?

The answers to those questions are massively important for the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. As governments encroach more and more into areas that have historically been left to theology and the domain of churches and religious organizations, the designation of a person as a “minister” carries with it certain protections from government interference that are valuable to the mission and autonomy of those entities.

To understand the significance of this issue, keep in mind that a “minister” can be more than the pastor of a church that carries the official title of “Minister.” 

That’s why two recent petitions to the U.S. Supreme Court from a Christian college in Massachusetts and a church in Virginia are so important.

The two religious entities involved, Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, and New Life in Christ Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, have asked the high court to reverse lower court decisions that rejected their own determinations regarding who their “ministers” are. In so doing, they argue that the First Amendment prevents government from second-guessing the religious doctrine and determinations of faith-based organizations.

In the case involving Gordon College, a professor who was denied tenure sued the Christian college, alleging that she was denied a promotion for being an outspoken critic regarding the college’s policies and practices concerning LGBT individuals and its beliefs about same-sex relationships. This, she alleged, violated Massachusetts employment laws concerning discrimination. Ultimately, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in the professor’s favor. In so ruling, the court decided that the professor was not a “minister” for purposes of the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” even though the college argued she – and all of its professors – definitely are.

Gordon College is represented by attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). In a press release announcing the college’s petition filed with the Supreme Court, Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch explained the issue.

“The government should not interfere with the religious decisions of religious colleges,” Bursch said. “Gordon College works to stretch the mind, deepen the faith, and elevate the contribution that Gordon students and graduates make to the world around them. Gordon’s professors are the key to teaching the faith to its students. And the First Amendment is clear: The government has no business telling a faith-based college how to exercise its faith.”

The case of New Life in Christ Church (New Life) also involves a government decision regarding who is a “minister.” Virginia law provides an exemption from property taxes for real property and personal property owned by churches and exclusively occupied or used for the residence of the minister of any church or religious body.

New Life hired Josh and Anacari Storms, a married couple, to teach and spread the faith to college students in the community. It also provided them with a residence on church property and claimed the tax exemption from the city. The city, however, denied the exemption, claiming that the couple – in the city’s view – were not “ministers” because they were not ordained.

New Life is represented by attorneys with First Liberty Institute. Kelly Shackelford is First Liberty’s President, CEO and Chief Counsel.

“Government officials have no right to substitute their theology for that of the church,” Shackelford said in a press release.  “New Life in Christ Church considers its college campus ministers’ actions to be essential functions of the ministry of the church, and the city should abide by that decision. The city’s own interpretation of this church’s doctrine and what is a minister unnecessarily requires the government to delve into issues of faith and doctrine in a way that violates the First Amendment.”

The First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, i.e., “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or infringing the free exercise thereof…” has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to prevent the government from interfering with the ecclesiastical decisions of religious entities. When it comes to the hiring and firing of “ministers,” the high court has ruled that state and federal laws that interfere with such decisions don’t apply, labeling it the “ministerial exception.”

But who is a minister, and who gets to decide that question? Recent Supreme Court decisions have looked at a variety of factors, such as the formal designation of a person as a “minister,” the person’s training, whether there is a formal “calling” or ordination involved, among others. There is no rigid formula.

The problem the courts have been trying to avoid creating is a situation where a religious organization simply declares everyone it employs a minister, whether they preach from a pulpit or clean restrooms, in order to – in bad faith – avoid the reach of state and federal employment laws or enjoy the perks provided under law to those so designated.

The Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the “ministerial exception” is still evolving, simply because the court has not established a formula or “one-size-fits-all” definition. Its seminal case on this issue, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, was decided as recently as 2012.

But these two cases – Gordon College and New Life – ask the court to rule that, in the absence of evidence of bad faith, the religious organization’s designation of who its “ministers” are should control, and not be second-guessed by the government or by a secular court.

Such a result would serve two important purposes. First, it would provide clarity on an issue which needs it and make future court cases on this subject easy to decide in the lower courts. Second, it would further serve the First Amendment’s purpose of keeping government – including the government’s courts – out of the business of deciding religious questions.

It could be several months before the Supreme Court announces whether it will accept either, or both, of these cases. We’ll keep you updated.

The cases are Gordon College v. DeWeese-Boyd and Trustees of the New Life in Christ Church v. City of Fredericksburg.

Photo from John Phelan/Wikimedia.