IN COURT OF APPEALS
Lutheran High School of Greater Minneapolis,
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod,
Filed August 23, 2005
Robert H. Schumacher, Judge
William M. Hart, Leatha G. Wolter, Melissa Dosick Riethof, Meagher & Geer, P.L.L.P., 33 South Sixth Street, Suite 4200, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent Lutheran High School of Greater Minneapolis)
Stephen O. Plunkett, Shanda K. Pearson, Rider Bennett, LLP, 33 South Sixth Street, Suite 4900, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod)
S Y L L A B U S
1. Resolution of a discrimination claim by an ordained minister who is a religious teacher and campus pastor at a religious high school that he was wrongfully discharged under the Minnesota Human Rights Act based on his sexual orientation is prohibited by the entanglement doctrine of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
2. Resolution of a discrimination claim by an ordained minister who is a religious teacher and campus pastor at a religious high school that he was wrongfully discharged under the Minnesota Human Rights Act based on his sexual orientation is prohibited by the Freedom of Conscience Clause of the Minnesota Constitution.
3. Related entities may be considered a single employer within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 363A.03, subd. 16 (2004).
4. Religious organizations may be exempt from claims of sexual-orientation discrimination under Minn. Stat. § 363A.26(2) (2004).
O P I N I O N
ROBERT H. SCHUMACHER, Judge
Appellant John FR Doe challenges the district court’s grant of summary judgment to respondents Lutheran High School of Greater Minneapolis and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod on his discrimination claim that he was wrongfully discharged under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. § 363A.08, subd. 2(b) (2004), based on his sexual orientation. He argues that his claims are not prohibited under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or the Freedom of Conscience Clause of the Minnesota Constitution and that the religious-association exemption in the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. § 363A.26(2) (2004), does not apply. The synod argues in a notice of review that it is not Doe’s employer within the meaning of the Minnesota Human Rights Act. We affirm.
is a membership organization of Lutheran congregations and ministers. It is an advisory body rather than an ecclesiastical
government. The synod may grant
recognized-service-organization status to an organization. While such an organization remains
independent, it “fosters the mission and ministry of the church, engages in
program activity that is in harmony with the programs of the boards of the
Synod, and respects and does not act contrary to the doctrine and practice of
In 1973, by resolution the synod recognized “homophile behavior “intrinsically sinful.” In 1999, it published a document outlining its ministerial goals of “repentance” and “abst[inence] from homosexual behavior” in “A Plan for Ministry to Homosexuals and Their Families.” The plan notes that the “Scriptures are clear . . . that homosexuality is the tragic result of original sin.” Another document prepared by the synod in 1981 states that “[a]s a sinful human being the homosexual is held accountable to God for homosexual thoughts, words, and deeds.”
The high school’s faculty handbook states that the high school “is a sacred community which is administered according to the Christian understanding of the Gospel.” The association bylaws state that the aim of the school is “to offer a sound Christian education” and that education is to “rest wholly and solely on the Word of God as contained in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.” The high school’s bylaws require that, where possible, the faculty should be members of the synod. When the positions cannot be filled in that manner, they may be filled with other “Christian instructors.” The bylaws state that “[n]o instructor shall be employed or retained who teaches anything contrary to the letter and spirit of the confessions, symbols, doctrines, practices or discipline prescribed by the doctrinal foundation.”
The synod ordained Doe as a pastor in July 1976. He was initially called to serve as the high school’s campus pastor from 1976 to 1979. After serving in other ministries, he was again called to be a campus pastor and teacher in 1993. A “call” is a calling to public ministry that is placed by a synod congregation or registered service organization to perform public ministry responsibilities. According to the synod’s documents, the “Holy Spirit guides and directs the process of calling workers in His kingdom through people, on behalf of the calling entities, according to their constitutional process. Each step of the process will always include prayer that God’s will be done and that the process and decisions be guided by the Holy Spirit.”
Doe’s position with the high school was that of a teacher and chair of the theology department, as well as a campus pastor at the high school. His responsibilities included classroom education, chapel oversight, and student counseling. As campus pastor, he supervised Holocaust education and diversity education, conducted chapel services, conducted and oversaw small prayer groups and meetings for the students, and had a pastoral-care office. Doe acknowledged that the high school follows religious beliefs and doctrinal statements of the synod and as campus pastor and theology teacher, he was responsible for ensuring that students and faculty followed those principles.
Doe, who was married and has two daughters, informed his family in spring 1998 that he identified as a gay man. At his wife’s request, he then informed her family by letter of his sexual orientation. His wife’s brother, who was employed by the synod as an administrative pastor, contacted his own bishop with this information, who then told Doe’s bishop, Dr. Seitz. In spring 1999, Seitz contacted Doe, who acknowledged his identity as a gay man and explained that he was not in a “gay relationship” and had never lived a “gay lifestyle.”
In September 1999, Seitz and Doe met with the high school’s then-principal, Randy Ash. The discussion focused on Doe remaining “closeted” and celibate and that he would continue to teach for another year because of the difficulty of finding a replacement. In January 2000, Doe met with Seitz again because the high school had an opportunity to call a new pastor to replace Doe. Doe then resigned. He did not tell any of his students of his sexual orientation.
the high school and the synod for discrimination based on his sexual
orientation. The district court granted
summary judgment in favor of
1. Would resolution of Doe’s claim violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution?
2. Would resolution of Doe’s claim violate the Freedom of Conscience Clause of the Minnesota Constitution?
3. Is the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Doe’s employer within the meaning of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. § 363A.03, subd. 16 (2004)?
4. Does the religious association exemption in Minn. Stat. § 363A.26(2) (2004) apply?
reviewing summary judgment, we determine whether there are any genuine
questions of material fact and whether the district court erred as a matter of
by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (
1. Doe sued
that the First Amendment does not preclude a court’s review of the discharge
decision. The First Amendment provides in
relevant part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
may not inquire into or review the internal decisionmaking or governance of a
religious institution.” Odenthal, 649 N.W.2d at 435. Accordingly, a court could not review claims
by a pastor related to her appointment and discharge under the MHRA because
these were “fundamentally connected to issues of church doctrine and governance
and would require court review of the church’s motives” for discharge. Black
v. Snyder, 471 N.W.2d 715, 720 (Minn. App. 1991), review denied (Minn. Aug. 29, 1991). Similarly, a pastor’s claims
related to his appointment and discharge as a pastor were not reviewable because
adjudication would require an evaluation of scripture, doctrine, and moral
principles. Singleton v. Christ the
Thus, the question here is whether analysis of Doe’s discrimination claim will require inquiry into the internal decision-making of a religious institution, is fundamentally connected to issues of church doctrine and governance, or requires evaluation of scriptures and church doctrine, or whether it may be resolved by neutral principles of law.
Although Doe acknowledges that part of his job entailed pastoral duties, he asserts that because he was also a secular teacher, resolution of his claims requires application of neutral principles of law and therefore an examination of his claims would not violate the Establishment Clause. Doe also argues that even though he acknowledges his identity as a gay man, it was acceptable for him to continue in his position because he was celibate and did not speak openly about his sexual orientation.
conclude there is no evidence showing that Doe had a position that could be
split into secular and nonsecular so that they could be considered separately
and, further, analysis of Doe’s claim would require delving into church
doctrine. Doe, an ordained minister, was
initially “called” to his position, a process which, according to church doctrine,
is guided by the Holy Spirit and God’s will.
The high school is a “sacred community” administered “according to the
Christian understanding of the Gospel.”
The education provided to students is based on the scriptures of the Old
and New Testament, to which teachers are asked to ascribe when teaching. As described in the facts, the synod’s
written documents demonstrate the organization’s position that “homosexuality
is intrinsically sinful.” Doe’s
assertion that he should not have been discharged based on his sexual
orientation would require the court to analyze and apply church doctrine to
assess his argument. We must conclude
that this type of searching inquiry intrudes into church doctrine and church
administrative matters and engenders a prohibited relationship between the
church and the judiciary. Singleton, 541 N.W.2d at 612. Consequently, resolution of Doe’s claims
would violate the establishment doctrine of the First Amendment.
2. Next, Doe challenges the district court decision that his claim must also be dismissed under the Freedom of Conscience Clause of the Minnesota Constitution. The Freedom of Conscience Clause provides in relevant part as follows:
The right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience shall never be infringed; nor shall any man be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any religious or ecclesiastical ministry, against his consent, nor shall any control of or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted, or any preference be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of the state . . . .
Freedom of Conscience Clause “precludes an infringement on or an interference
with religious freedom and limits the permissible countervailing interests of
the government.” State v. Hershberger, 462 N.W.2d 393, 397 (
As to the
record clearly demonstrates that Doe was not merely a lay employee. Instead, he was a campus pastor as well as a
teacher of religious subjects.
As to the
third factor, “the government has an overriding compelling interest in
prohibiting discrimination in employment and public accommodation.” State
by McClure v. Sports & Health Club, Inc., 370 N.W.2d 844, 853 (
3. By notice of review, the synod argues
that it is not an employer governed by the MHRA. This issue presents a question of statutory
interpretation. In analyzing such
issues, the court’s objective is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the
The MHRA prohibits “employer[s]” from
discriminating in employment practices.
The district court, applying this test, concluded that the school is under the control of the synod to an extent sufficient to find that the synod is an employer for the purpose of applying the MHRA. We agree. First, as to common ownership or financial control, the synod and the high school are independent entities, although the high school is a recognized service organization of the synod.
and most important factor is whether there is centralized control of labor
The third factor, the interrelation of operations, refers to whether the entities share office space, sell services, or transfer employees. Here, there was interrelation to the extent that the synod was involved in calling ministers who may go from one service organization to another.
factor is whether the same individuals manage and control the two
4. We now address whether the synod and
high school are exempt from the MHRA prohibition against discrimination based
on sexual orientation under Minn. Stat. § 363A.26(2) (2004). The MHRA prohibits discharge from employment
based on sexual orientation.
Nothing in this chapter prohibits any religious association, religious corporation, or religious society that is not organized for private profit, or any institution organized for educational purposes that is operated, supervised, or controlled by a religious association, religious corporation, or religious society that is not organized for private profit, from: . . . in matters relating to sexual orientation, taking any action with respect to education, employment, housing and real property, or use of facilities. This clause shall not apply to secular business activities engaged in by the religious association, religious corporation, or religious society, the conduct of which is unrelated to the religious and educational purposes for which it is organized.
exemption was applied to a church that was sued for sexual orientation
discrimination by a discharged church music director, based on the
determination that the music director was a church employee. Egan v.
Doe first contends that Thorson is not controlling because it is inconsistent with Egan. Egan analyzed the question of whether a music director was a religious employee based on the plain language of the exemption. 679 N.W.2d at 355 In contrast, using legislative history, Thorson determined that the statutory phrase “secular business activities” applied to the purpose and mission of the entire entity, rather than to the job responsibilities of the individual employee. 687 N.W.2d at 656. We find no conflict because Egan did not engage in statutory construction or address the broader question decided in Thorson.
Next, Doe challenges
the holding in Thorson, arguing that this
court interpreted the statute too broadly.
But the supreme court denied review in Thorson, and appellate courts are bound by the doctrine of stare
decisis, which directs that “we adhere to former decisions in order that there
might be stability in the law.” Oanes v. Allstate Ins. Co., 617 N.W.2d
401, 406 (
Doe also contends that Thorson’s broad application of the exemption to any employee whose function is any way related to the religious association’s mission as a whole runs afoul of the Establishment Clause. Doe acknowledged at oral argument that this issue was not raised below but contends that it had not arisen because this court had not yet issued Thorson. Nonetheless, this court will not address an issue not raised to or decided by the district court. Thiele, 425 N.W.2d at 582-83.
The district court properly found that the religious-association exemption applied because the synod and the school are religious organizations and because Doe was a religious employee, as an ordained minister who was campus pastor and as a teacher whose responsibilities were in large part religious.
The district court’s decision finding that the resolution of Doe’s discrimination claim would violate the First Amendment and the Freedom of Conscience Clause and that the exemption for religious organizations in Minn. Stat. § 363A.26(2) (2004) applies is affirmed.
 The MHRA was recodified in 2003.