California Employment Law Blog

Are Religious Employers Off the Hook for Employment-Related Claims?

Posted by Timothy B. Del Castillo | Oct 03, 2018 | 0 Comments

Man standing near building

Can secular courts decide employment disputes that occur at religious institutions?  That was the issued recently addressed again by the Third District Court of Appeal. 

The case involved a wrongful termination claim by the former Dean of A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary, part of Simpson University.  The University defended the case based on the "ministerial exception."

What is the Ministerial Exception?

The ministerial exception is a non-statutory doctrine which prohibits courts from getting involved in workplace disputes between a church and its ministers.  The United States Supreme Court addressed this doctrine in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran v. EEOC in 2012.  The Supreme Court held the ministerial exception barred a minister from suing their church for discrimination.  Put simply, the Court reasoned that imposing on a religious institution's choice of its ministers would impede on the institution's free exercise of religion by "requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister." 

The Supreme Court did not address whether the ministerial exception applies to breach of contract or tort claims.

Under the Hosanna-Tabor precedent, the ministerial exception should apply to any employee who leads a religious organization.  The Court of Appeal held that Dean Sumner was a “ministerial employee” as the head of the Seminary and an employee of the clearly religious university.

Does the Ministerial Exception Apply to a Breach of Contract?

The Dean initially asserted causes of action for discrimination and harassment on the basis of gender, but later dismissed those claims and asserted a breach of contract claim. 

In the Third DCA's opinion, Justice Coleman Blease notes: “Other non-California cases have held that a contract action is not barred if interpretation of the contract does not require the court to resolve a religious controversy.”  The ministerial exception is in place to ensure courts do not consider religious impacts to employment.  But, as is the case here, when the employment agreement the university is alleged to have breached does not require a resolution to a religious controversy, the court is free to step in.

Justice Blease continues: “Reviewing Sumner's contract cause of action will not require the court to wade into doctrinal waters because review of the breach of contract claim does not require a review of Sumner's religious qualification or performance as a religious leader … Defendants voluntarily circumscribed their own conduct by entering into the contract with Sumner, and the contract can be enforced without breaching the institution's religious autonomy.”

It is important to note that religious employers in California also have an exemption from Fair Employment and Housing Act claim expressly provided for by statute

The Upshot

Religious employers should not assume that they are off the hook as to any employment related claims.  Wage and hour claims, and breach of contract claims that do not require application of doctrine, remain viable against religious employers. 

About the Author

Timothy B. Del Castillo

Tim practices employment law in California and represents both employees and employers in federal and state courts, administrative hearings, arbitrations, mediations, and in direct negotiations. Tim also offers advice and counsel and training to businesses to help them achieve compliance with California employment laws.


There are no comments for this post. Be the first and Add your Comment below.

Leave a Comment


Castle Law’s goal is to become your trusted advisor and to provide real value for all of your employment law needs. To become our client’s trusted advisors, we aim to provide quality representation and sound advice time and again.


There is no charge for the initial phone consultation. Fill out the contact form on the website with detailed information about your circumstances and we will schedule a telephone appointment.

Copyright © 2020 Castle Law: California Employment Counsel

Attorney Timothy B. Del Castillo is responsible for the content on this website, which may contain an advertisement. The information on this website does not constitute an attorney-client relationship and no attorney-client relationship is formed until conflicts have been cleared and both parties have signed a written fee agreement. Please do not send any confidential information through the website. The materials and information on this website are for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as legal advice. PRIOR RESULTS DO NOT GUARANTEE FUTURE OUTCOMES. Any testimonials or endorsements do not constitute a guarantee, warranty, or prediction regarding the outcome of your legal matter.