In an unusual 6-4 decision, the Denver-based federal appeals court declined to reconsider its ruling earlier this year that an Arvada church could be held legally liable for allegedly retaliating against the one of his former employees.
Originally decided in June by a three-judge panel, Faith Bible Chapel International and its religious school, Faith Christian Academy, sought a rare all-judge review before the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, called a hearing “on bench”. Both sides accused the other of departing from US Supreme Court precedent and misrepresenting the facts of the case.
The central issue before the appeals court was whether it could review a trial judge’s ruling that it was unclear whether Gregory Tucker met the definition of a “minister” when that he worked at Faith Christian. Had he done so, Tucker could not sue his former employer for employment discrimination because of a “ministerial exception” the Supreme Court has granted to faith-based organizations when making personal decisions based on religious needs.
Tucker’s lawsuit against Faith Bible generated considerable interest nationwide from faith-based organizations and First Amendment scholars, who feared that the 10th Circuit’s interpretation of the ministerial exception could have the effect of inappropriately entangling the judicial system with disputes of a fundamentally religious nature.
Senior Judge David M. Ebel, who wrote the original majority opinion rejecting Faith Bible’s appeal, released a statement after the court’s bench vote. He defended the panel’s decision, the first of its kind, not to treat the ministerial exception as outright immunity for religious organizations — the kind that would entitle the Faith Bible to an immediate appeal and potentially avoid the dictatorship altogether. court case.
“Our panel’s decision denying Faith Christian an immediate appeal follows well-established lines of Supreme Court jurisprudence and creates no circuit division,” Ebel wrote Nov. 15. “What little authority there is unanimously supports our decision.”
Judge Carolyn B. McHugh, as another judge who formed the majority in the original ruling, also signed Ebel’s statement.
The court’s decision to reject en banc review was largely partisan. Of the non-senior active judges who have considered rehearing the case, negative votes have come from McHugh, Scott M. Matheson Jr., Gregory A. Phillips, and Nancy L. Moritz, all appointees by Barack Obama; Veronica S. Rossman, a Joe Biden appointee; and Harris L Hartz, a George W. Bush appointee.
Timothy M. Tymkovich, a Bush appointee, voted to review and possibly overturn the panel’s decision; Allison H. Eid and Joel M. Carson III, nominated by Donald Trump; and Robert E. Bacharach, an Obama appointee.
Chief Justice Jerome A. Holmes, a Bush appointee, recused himself from voting.
Tucker worked at Faith Christian for 14 years between 2000 and 2018, originally teaching science but later becoming director of student life – a position also known as “chaplain”. As part of his duties as chaplain, he held weekly “chapel meetings”.
After becoming increasingly concerned about racism at school, Tucker organized a “race and faith chapel” in January 2018. Although initially well received, parents later complained to the administration. The school stripped Tucker of his duties before firing him in February 2018.
Tucker then sued Faith Bible, claiming he fired him in retaliation for his opposition to a racially hostile environment, which is an activity protected by federal civil rights law. Faith Bible decided to dismiss the lawsuit, saying Tucker was a minister, and under the ministerial exception the courts could not hear Tucker’s lawsuit due to the religious nature of the staff’s decision.
Senior U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson considered whether to grant summary judgment to Faith Bible, which allows a judge to resolve a case without a trial if key, undisputed facts allow. party to prevail over the law alone. In favor of Faith Bible, Jackson acknowledged Tucker’s title as “chaplain”, the requirement in his contract of employment that he adhere to Christianity, and his duties related to the “spiritual welfare of students”.
However, Tucker also presented evidence suggesting he was not a minister. His job did not involve preaching, he did not counsel students on theology, and when he asked the school superintendent if he qualified as a minister under federal tax law, the superintendent would have said no.
Jackson concluded that there was a factual dispute over whether Tucker was qualified as a minister and elected to send the case to a jury to decide.
Faith Bible then immediately appealed to the 10th Circuit. Although such interlocutory or interim appeals are rare, Faith Bible argued that the ministerial exception should be treated the same as the concept of qualified immunity. While the Ministerial Exception is intended to prevent the government from interfering with religious institutions, qualified immunity is a defense only available to government employees – excluding prosecution entirely unless an official violates legal rights. clearly established of a person.
This summer, the 10th Circuit panel ruled, 2-1, that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case because the ministerial exception was not in the same category of qualified immunity that entitles a defendant to an immediate appeal. Although Faith Bible could raise the exception as a defense at trial, the majority found that Jackson correctly identified the conflicting evidence a jury must settle on Tucker’s status.
“Unlike the ‘ministerial exception,’ the Supreme Court has explicitly recognized that qualified immunity protects government officials not only from liability, but also from the burden of litigation itself,” Ebel wrote for himself. and McHugh. “Faith Christian cited no case that the ‘ministerial exception’ would similarly immunize a private religious employer from the burden of litigating employment discrimination claims brought against him.”
Bacharach dissented, believing not only that the ministerial exception allowed Faith Christian to have her appeal heard immediately, but that the facts showed that Tucker was indeed a minister who had no right to sue his employer.
“Subject to trial, the religious body could face judicial interference in religious doctrine, costly and time-consuming litigation over the content and significance of religious principles, and the blurring of the boundary between church and religion. ‘State,’ Bacharach warned.
Faith Bible, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, DC, quickly proposed an en banc review. He argued that the 10th Circuit’s ruling was unprecedented and at odds with other federal appeals courts. Faith Bible accused Tucker of misrepresenting his job in court and called the panel’s decision “allowing disgruntled clergy to use the power of federal justice to probe the minds of the church.”
Tucker, represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also in Washington, D.C., also singled out Faith Bible for falsely claiming that the court ruling would require all discrimination claims against faith-based organizations are heard by juries.
Because “the essential facts are in dispute, the panel rightly allowed the case to proceed and left fact-finding to the trial court,” Tucker’s attorneys wrote.
Legal briefs in support of Faith Bible began pouring into the 10th Circuit, with First Amendment scholars, religious groups inside and outside Colorado and 16 Republican-run states urging the entire 10th Circuit to hear the case.
Specifically, the Colorado Catholic Conference, along with the Association of Christian Schools International and other Christian organizations, were concerned that the 10th Circuit panel had eroded the “protection” of religious employer immunity.
“Telling a religious school that it has the constitutional right to fire a teacher-minister based on failing to meet the school’s religious standards, but that it will cost the school several hundred thousand dollars in fees legal issues if the court finds factual issues for the trial,” the groups wrote, “is to leave the school with an impossible choice: retain religiously antagonistic staff to avoid the cost of litigation, or preserve the identity religious but risk bankrupting the school with legal fees.
Ebel, a Ronald Reagan appointee, insisted in his statement following the bench vote that there would be no government “interference” in religious decisions, as faith-based organizations may already be prosecuted for employment discrimination by non-departmental employees. The panel’s decision, he explained, would simply allow a jury to decide whether the exception applied to Tucker.
Bacharach also penned a statement echoing arguments from outside groups that faith-based employers would now be subject to “long and costly litigation.”
“Given these burdens of litigation itself, religious bodies will no doubt hesitate before deciding to suspend or fire renegade ministers,” he warned.
Tymkovich, Eid and Carson also signed Bacharach’s statement.
The case is TUcker c. Faith Bible Chapel International.