In Middleton v. United Church of Christ Board, (6th Cir., Nov. 22, 2021), the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a Title VII racial discrimination suit brought by a minister claiming an anti-Black hostile work environment. The three-judge panel unanimously agreed that while plaintiff may have been treated badly, it did not rise to the level of a hostile work environment. Two of the judges (Boggs and Larsen, JJ) went on to hold:
[T]he ministerial exception bars any judicial consideration of a church’s tangible employment actions taken against a minister in a discrimination claim, regardless of its underlying basis…. Otherwise, the church would be required to respond that its tangible employment actions were motivated not by discriminatory animus, but by nondiscriminatory reasons…. [T]he court would then be required to conduct a pretext inquiry to determine the church’s true motivation. This would involve an examination of the church’s reasons for determining the fitness and qualifications of its ministers—a determination necessarily informed by religious belief. This is precisely the kind of state inquiry into church employment decisions that the First Amendment forbids.
Judge Moore in a concurring opinion argued that the court need not reach the ministerial exception issue. [Thanks to Heather Kimmel for the lead.]