On August 15, 2016, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a 56-year-old injured music teacher at a Seventh-day Adventist school on the basis that, as a "minister," she had no right to pursue federal claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. (Curl v. Beltsville Adventist School)
If the article fails on any point, it is that it too gentle to the people who perpetrated this action. They are named in the Court’s case document. It is clear that the Court felt a lot of sympathy for this teacher even though the judges couldn’t help her.
Conference administrators Keith Hallam and Johana Prestol-Dominguez should explain to the church membership who should be aghast at this and explain why they thought they were doing the “right thing” and or offer a very public apology. They weren’t just “following orders.” They were complicit and active.
Every time the corporate side of “Church” responds like the Pharisees we see money win against Goodwill,Decency,Fairness, and most of all Christ like behavior. Doesn’t anyone ask “what would Jesus do?” when faced with making these decisions? This is so wrong in so many different ways! Shame! Shame! On those that think they are wiser than our Model. You will be telling your excuses to the Judge one day!
It is truly unfortunate how the church adamantly impresses upon its workers that unions are evil and then open the door for abuses of their professional standing. As a teacher in an SDA school system for 18 of my 22 years of teaching, I can attest to the abuses that go on when we are told that our ‘job’ is a ‘ministry’. Amazing that this is now a legal loophole for the church instead of a moral moniker adopted by teaching professionals. I am so glad I am out of this system and working in an environment that protects its workers instead of exploiting them with a hybrid ‘church/state’ amalgamation with no protection. Shame on the Conference.
(Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:13)
So women are “ministerial employees” when it suits the church, but not fully recognized as ministers when it does not suit the church. Got it.
I find it very ironic that religious organisations have a lower legal obligation of ethical behavior, as compared to their secular counterparts.
That the Potomac Conference has chosen to avail itself of this “privilege”, and unfairly terminate the employment of Ms Curl for purely expedient reasons, is a very sad indictment on the moral integrity of the conference administrators.
I should underscore the fact that the ministerial exception does serve a very useful purpose in protecting the rights of religious organizations to make personnel decisions that are in line with religious teachings. For instance, not following religious teachings in one’s personal life, etc. But there should be a legal standard that calls for a connection between the beliefs and the personnel action. Currently there is no meaningful requirement for a religious practice connection aside from an organization’s assertion that it exists. For instance, in this case there does not appear to be a religious reason for the denial of employment accommodation.
On one more note, there is no guarantee as to who would have won the lawsuit in which the teacher asserted that her legal rights ere violated had it been allowed to continue but the issue here was whether it could even go to trial. In this case the court said it could not proceed based on the exception and it seems that given the current law, the court reached the legally correct conclusion B although there may have been room for a factual dispute as to whether it met the two-prong exception test.
What is apparent is that this case does not seem to implicate a core religious belief of the church and the church could not assert that it took the action it did because the teacher has violated a religious beliefs. That gives the “ministerial exception” defense a troubling pretextual aspect. By asserting that protection given these facts, the church may have taken a serious step toward losing the benefits of a properly applied exception in the future.
Any legal argument that is abused to the point of absurdity is at risk of challenge and potential repeal.
I heartily applaud the author for writing this article.
Very, very disturbing. What a great embarrassment this hypocrisy is.
I think the names of those who decided to use the “minster” claim should be highly publicized. As Ted Wilson put it, “hold them accountable.” I hope there is a follow-up article. It remains unclear to me to what extent the named Conference administrators, Keith Hallam and Johana Prestol-Dominguez, are responsible. Why not name the legal counsel as well? We need transparency.
The reporting here does include what type of payment or settlement was paid by or received from the workers compensation claim. The injuries occurred on the job. Surely the workers compensation claim was not excluded under the ministerial protection ruling. There are very strict rules under which workers compensation insurance must pay injured workers who are either temporarily or permenantly unable to work. As I read the article, the dismissal was a result of an injury sustained on the job that prevented the plaintiff from performing her job. This is clear from the doctors letter. The employee was not terminated because of age, a violation of The Family and Medical Leave Act, or even a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. No employer, religious or not, would be prevented from terminating an employee who could not work. Being unable to work is different than being disabled. There does not seem to be any reasonable accommodation that would allow the plaintiff to continue in her position, a requirement of the Disabilities Act, were the church required to follow this act.
The question here to me is did the person injured receive compensation for the injuries sustained on the job from the worker compensation insurance. Beyond this, Social Security Disability would pay if the disability was permanent, with some restrictions, depending on how the workers compensation claim paid out.
Another question is, Was the injury the result of an unsafe work environment created by the employer? If so there could possibly some path for a claim here. The article does not detail the circumstances that caused the injury.
Unfortunately, most Americans would have suffered the same fate had they been injured at work. Unless you have disability insurance through your employer or privately, you are on your own. The article does not tell us if the employee opted to carry disability insurance.
Did the Church act ethically? There are not enough facts since we do not know whether or not the employee contributed to their own injury by failing to exercise due care. The church appears to have exercised its protection afforded as a religious institution from being sued under these Federal Acts as a short cut to effecting what would have been the same outcome if the suit were allowed to continue.
I know of a case in New Zealand decades ago in which the “ministerial exception” was used to support the Conference in its denial of due process and procedural fairness in the lead up to the termination of a person in pastoral ministry.
Here are some of the major features of that saga!
The individual asked about 6 times over a period of many months for a list of work areas where he was not up to standard in his work. This was either met by a verbal refusal to do so or most often no response.
The individual indicated about 18 months before termination that he would be happy to be reassigned outside of pastoral ministry.
A newly developed Ministry and Career Appraisal Process was used to provide a 100 word summary of the individual’s ministry. It concluded that the individual was “more suited to tertiary teaching and other academic pursuits, than to pastoral ministry.” And therefore presumably someone of value to the church.
Several years before this happened, in an attempt to keep all SDA Church employees and Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing employees on the same salary schedule, all of the above had signed an employment contract, which very unwisely superceded the South Pacific Division Working Policies to do with employment and conciliation issues. However the NZ Empoyment Contract did not altogether annul the operation of the SPD Working Policies in these areas. Indeed NZ case law gave every indication that the employment contract should be read in the light of the SPD Working Policy, especially in regard to due process and procedural fairness. Very similar language was used in both documents, and often the Employment Contact was more succinct than the SPD Working Policy meaning in practical terms that the intent of both documents would most likely be established in light of the most detailed one. (Several years after this saga happened, the Employment Contract for all SDA employees was withdrawn and Conference Personnel were returned to the care of the provisions of the SDA Working Policy).
Soon after the Ministry and Career Appraisal Process findings were handed down, the Conference Executive Committee invited the individual to resign his position, if no alternative were found within a 3 month period. Half-hearted efforts were made to find such a position without success. (Once the said Conference had offloaded the individual, no employing entity in the whole South Pacific Division was moved to help the individual).
When the individual claimed the provisions of the Employment Contract in terms of due process and procedural fairness, he was told that these didn’t apply to him because of the “ministerial exception.” He was bluntly reminded that he was not an employee. Talk about a claytons employment contract - the contract you have when you are not having one. On the other hand, when the individual claimed the provisions of the South Pacific Division Working Policy he was informed that this had been annulled by the Employment Contract.
Very, very true Robert!! Indeed!! Exactly!!
The real test for any Adventist organization in a case like Ms Curl’s is whether that organization will assist her to find alternative employment within a reasonable time period.
According to the ruling, she did receive workcomp benefits but these benefits would have presumably ended when she was released by her doctor to return to work. The employer refused her return to work and apparently had already terminated her when the doctor’s note was signed although she did not receive notice of it. This termination while on disability leave would have been in violation of public policy, but the church is shielded from the ramifications of this decision because it is a church and she was a “minister.”
Further, although the employer apparently reopened the investigation upon receipt of the doctor’s outline of modifications, the employer does not appear to have made an effort to engage in an “interactive process” to see whether she could have been accommodated.
As a result it became an Americans with Disabilities Act issue as the ADA requires employers to attempt accommodation. Here, there is no evidence that the church attempted to accommodate her before firing her.
There is no evidence in the document of third-party involvement or liability in the injury itself which could have led to further recovery of her losses.
Also, in most cases, church employers do not pay into state unemployment benefit funds and a church employees therefore does not receive anything beyond a severance is the religious organization voluntarily decides to pay it or buy insurance to pay it.
It’s not clear what disclosures are made at hire or periodically for church employees but they should understand that their employment by a church may cause them to lose rights that they may be accustomed to in a secular environment. And a church should take the opportunity to raise the standard rather provide the bare minimum which falls way below the secular minimum.
It is time to bring the business of the church into line with the message of the church.
Your stand isn’t unique. My husband and I have always paid a faithful tithe to God. Since an eye opening incident in SECC about 12 years ago, we don’t necessarily put the conference’s name in the “Pay To” line either.
Some very serious well informed minds have put their view on the web. thank you. The church is like the Red Cross they took in millions following the earthquake in Haiti and then rebuilt only four houses. The CEO gets into the high six figures, plus they fly first class. The same with Goodwill. even the Salvation Army keeps millions while the need mounts. Greed prevails. TZ
Because the author of the article responded directly to my post, I ask in advance for the indulgence of the web editor in allowing me one additional comment in this thread.
Those that know me can confirm that I am a strong critic of the lack of transparency in the way the church conducts its affairs. Even when there is transparency, many of the decisions are bewildering. Yet I continue to support the church through both tithes and offerings, working from within the existing structure to effect positive change. As a member I benefit in countless ways from membership in the church despite the ineptness of our leaders. I am amazed at how well the church actually functions knowing personally many who are in high positions. This alone is a miracle. It is for this reason I provide the support willingly and not out of a legalistic blind compliance or out of coercion.
That said, I try to stay impartial and not criticize every action of the church without knowing all the facts. It is a tragedy that a 25 year employee nearing retirement age has lost their job. I just don’t think we have all the facts in this case to say whether the termination was justified or not. What was the recent job performance of the employee prior to the injury? Was termination being contemplated prior to the injury? How did the injury occur? Could the employee have returned to work earlier? There are so many variables that we don’t know. I live near a Union office and have known many over the years who have lost their jobs after many years of service, sometimes just because of a change in leadership, with those new leaders bringing in their own people.
I agree with many of the individuals who would warn against employment by the church. It would not be my choice in any capacity. I would further advise against working for anyone and advise self employment. The way the church operates is no secret, especially to a 25 year veteran of the same school. If you choose to work for the church, you need a plan “B”.
If I’m understanding the facts as stated here, a truly horrifying tale. Ms. Curly shouldn’t have been terminated based upon her disability and the Conference ought to have reached an accommodation with her. The Court should not have allowed the Conference to interpret her work as “ministerial”. She does not have ministry credentials, especially when the purpose of calling her such is soley to strip her of workers benefits.
I would encourage those in the Potomac Conference to take up her cause, tell this story to every church within the Conference and to publish it loud and clear on all local and national media. Bring the bright light of publicity to shame the Conference into treating people as Jesus would.
My wife gets a card each year saying she is “ordained”. Clearly the SDA school system knows, by ordaining their teachers, they don’t have to pay for workman’s comp insurance. I wish she had been told she does not have insurance.
So: women are ordained when it saves money, but not when it challenges men’s authority.
In the real world it is illegal to:
“This job requires you to volunteer to teach class Sabbath morning.”
“The contract says you are teaching 6 classes but you are teaching 7.”
“You will attend the local church 3 weeks a month.”
“During your ‘free period’ you will teach Bible class”.
“You will give 10%+ back to your employer.”
"You will be living in school housing and that charge will come out of your wages."
what is stopping church employees from organizing into unions, i mean ministerial consortiums, and presenting a united front against church employer abuses…for instance, if all 20 teachers at beltsville adventist school had threatened to “discontinue their ministry” unless curl was accommodated, would the courts have forced them to maintain their “ministry”, adding a possibly new dimension of violation to first amendment infractions…and what is stopping adventist employees from eventually forming veggie versions of the americans with disabilities act, the age of discrimination in employment act, and the medical leave act that effectively protect them from abusive church employers…
part of the provisions in the first amendment is the proscription against enacting legislation that prohibits the petitioning of governmental redress for grievances…i don’t think it’s possible to envision a clearer demonstration of the goal of this part of the amendment than a church employee seeking governmental redress against an abusive church employer…if that church employee had access to versions of secular protections that were designed to function in a religious institution setting, i would think any aversion to intervene, on the part of courts, would be effectively dissipated…
the first amendment’s inclusion in the bill of rights must mean that there is a way for its jurisdiction with respect to religious freedoms to be preserved during the application of other aspects of those rights…otherwise we would have to say that some individuals are exempt from bill of rights protections, which really means they’re not full citizens entitled to the same rights as others…this in turn would mean that the american constitution, and its amendments, is an abject failure…