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OWN’s Greenleaf Presents Ministerial Exception Issue

Note: Includes spoilers for OWN’s Greenleaf.

Based on praise from various friends and colleagues, the lovely Mrs. Reed and I recently began watching Greenleaf, a series on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) that ran from 2016 to 2020. Wikipedia describes the show as follows:

Source: BD Images / shutterstock

Greenleaf follows the unscrupulous world of the Greenleaf family with scandalous secrets and lies, their palatial family mansion compound, and their sprawling Memphis megachurch with predominantly African-American members. The series’ lead characters are Bishop James Greenleaf … and Lady Mae Greenleaf …, who are the patriarch and matriarch of the Greenleaf family, and Grace Greenleaf …, their estranged daughter who has returned home after 20 years following the mysterious death of her sister, Faith. Deep down, this family cares for and loves each other, but secrets, lies, adultery, sibling rivalry and other issues swarm the family as they try to keep themselves together. There are a variety of people who try to run the family out of their beloved church but they lay it all on the line to keep each other tight and close like any family.

While Greenleaf has been uneven at times, I have consistently found it to be entertaining. The series has more of a soap opera feel than what I typically watch. However, it is sufficiently grounded in the culture of African-American Christianity, which has been a part of my life to varying degrees since childhood.

Greenleaf’s Portrayal of LGBTQ Issues

Greenleaf has been praised for its portrayal of LGBTQ issues within the black church. As noted by Frederick McKendra in an article entitled “Greenleaf Makes Space On TV For Queer Black People In Church,”Greenleaf measures the cost of piety and silence for LGBT people, and takes an earnest, mature look at the remaining tensions, and legacy, of queer black people in the black church—including those, like me, who have left it behind.” On the other hand, the show has been characterized as homophobic.

In season one, the Greenleaf family’s church, Calvary Fellowship, hires a choir director, Carlton Cruise, at the insistence of Bishop Greenleaf and Lady Mae’s daughter Charity. Lady Mae was reluctant to hire Carlton because he is gay and subsequently fires him in the second season. Ostensibly, the church’s decision is due to budget cuts, but Carlton (correctly) surmises that his discharge was based on his recent marriage to his husband. While Charity was an enthusiastic advocate for Carlton’s hiring, she does not fight for him when her mother pushes for his termination—perhaps because she is struggling with her husband Kevin Satterlee’s issues with his own sexual identity.

The Ministerial Exception to Civil Rights Laws

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—a federal law—makes it “unlawful … for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual … because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court held the following in Bostock v. Clayton County: “An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

The Court’s ruling was consistent with certain state-level civil rights laws. For example, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) makes it “an unlawful employment practice … [f]or an employer, because of the … sexual orientation … of any person, … to discriminate against the person in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”

Based on Title VII, Carlton should have a solid case for religious discrimination against Calvary Fellowship then, right? The answer is not as straightforward as one might think.

As noted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC):

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the [U.S.] Supreme Court “unanimously recognized that the Religion Clauses [of the First Amendment] foreclose certain employment-discrimination claims brought against religious organizations.” The Court held that the First Amendment safeguards the right of a religious organization, free from interference from civil authorities, to select those who will “personify its beliefs,” “shape its own faith and mission,” or “minister to the faithful.” This rule is known as the “ministerial exception,” apparently because “the individuals involved in pioneering cases were described as ‘ministers,’” but … the exception is not limited to “ministers” or members of the clergy. The rule provides “an affirmative defense to an otherwise cognizable claim, not a jurisdictional bar.”

In addition, the EEOC has stated that “the ministerial exception applies to employees who perform ‘vital religious duties’ at the core of the mission of the religious institution.”

Multiple courts have held that musicians within religious organizations fall under the guise of the ministerial exception. For example, in Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin, an age discrimination case, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Catholic church’s discharged music director was a covered subject. In doing so, the 5th Circuit reasoned that “music is an integral part of the celebration of Mass”; that the music director “played an important role in furthering the service and therefore helped convey the church’s message”; and that because “he made unilateral important decisions regarding the musical direction at Mass, the church considered him a minister.”

Recently, in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals addressed a case in which a church fired a gay music director after he married his husband. While the court acknowledged that the ministerial exception barred any sexual orientation discrimination claim, it held that the music director could bring a hostile work environment claim based on alleged sexual harassment.

In doing so, the 7th Circuit concluded that “the First Amendment does not require that supervisors and co-workers of ministerial have the right, for example, to leave nooses at the desk of a Black minister while repeatedly subjecting him to verbal abuse with racial epithets and symbols, or to subject a teacher to pervasive and unwelcome sexual attention, or to subject another to intimidating harassment based on national origin.” However, the 7th Circuit’s opinion was vacated, and the case will be reevaluated by a panel of judges.

Conclusion

The ministerial exception grants religious organizations significant latitude to make personnel decisions. So if Carlton were to bring a claim against Calvary Fellowship for sexual orientation discrimination, he would very likely be unsuccessful—despite being blatantly mistreated for no other reason than being gay. That said, the Demkovich decision—while not citable—shows there may be limits to the amount of unfair and improper conduct that can be directed at someone based on a protected category.