Good question, good answer

In response to my March 25 post (“The right to be wrong”) about the Klouda vs. Southwestern Seminary case, John Land (jpland) raised this good question:
“If it is allowable to discriminate within religious groups based upon one’s sex, should it also be allowable to do so based on one’s race? What about those who are handicapped? I’m trying to understand where the law stops (or should stop) and the rights of the church start.”
To get a deserving response, I asked Holly Hollman (in photo), general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., for help. Here’s her answer:
“In this area of the law, as in others, the answer to such broad questions is ‘it depends.’ Often, the same set of facts will yield a different result in different jurisdictions. To get a legal opinion on any precise question, one should engage a lawyer in the applicable jurisdiction and provide him or her with all pertinent facts. For educational purposes, however, the following general information may be helpful.
Under a variety of federal civil rights laws, it is unlawful for employers with a certain number of employees to discriminate in employment with regard to certain ‘protected categories,’ such as race, gender, religion, and disability. Recognizing that religious organizations are distinctly protected under the First Amendment and other laws, many non-discrimination laws provide certain exemptions for religious entities. For example, schools that are either explicitly religious or owned by a religious institution are allowed to discriminate based on religion in their hiring processes. Likewise, houses of worship are exempt from the ban on religious discrimination, even in positions that lack explicitly religious duties. This exemption, however, does not give such entities the right to discriminate based upon other protected categories, such as race and national origin. A broader exemption has been recognized by many courts to prevent interference in ecclesiastical matters. This ‘ministerial exemption’ is based in First Amendment concerns and respect for church autonomy. It goes beyond the exemption from the prohibition on religious discrimination found in federal civil rights laws, but is typically limited to a church’s ministerial positions. If an entity can prove that it is a church’ and that the person it is discriminating against is a ‘minister,’ then the courts will not rule on the case because ‘civil courts are not an appropriate forum for review of internal ecclesiastical decisions.’ Klouda v. Southwestern Theological Seminary, No. 4:07-CV-161-A (N.D. Tex. 2008). This is the exemption at issue in the Klouda case, and the court ultimately held that the seminary was a ‘church’ and Klouda was a ‘minister,’ as those terms are understood in the context of that jurisdiction’s ministerial exemption.”


  1. Dr. Pierce, I very much appreciate you looking into this issue further.

    Based on Ms. Hollman’s response, it seems like churches (or religious organizations, in general) get a free pass as long they define “ministers” broadly enough. For instance, I think that it would be easy for a group to fenie itself as a church and its “ministers” as the congregation and then cull the group based on whatever guidelines they see fit. (My understanding is that come churches openly practice this ability.)

    I guess it is good that the government allows each church to draw its line where it sees fit. I don’t particularly care for the practice, so it is probably in my best interest to avoid groups that do so. I know a journalist who wrote a post about “picking up snakes” that seems to apply here.

    (yes, I’m a little slow sometimes)

  2. Holly is super. I met her Mother after the Soaries/David Sapp moderated breakout at the Atlanta Covenant and it all makes more sense.
    As my friend Ron Rash says Smarts like that don’t grow up like daisies in a bunch of hogweed.
    Holly is to debate Richard Land tomorrow at Campbellsville Ky. College at 5pm.
    Hoping to get some good reports out of that.
    Baylor Grad student and former BJC intern Aaron Weaver and I have shared our hopes for Holly in that discussion at in the UVA Miller Debate thread.
    Hope some of you will take a look at our advice and counsel there.
    Go Holly!!!!!!!!!

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