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Appeals Court Drops Test of Who Qualifies as Church 'Minister'

Fifth Circuit decision reflects impact of Supreme Court's Hosanna-Tabor ruling.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has declined to dictate whom a church can "consider a lay liturgical minister under canon law," dropping its previous three-fold test.

In its first case to address the ministerial exception doctrine in light of the Supreme Court's Hosanna-Tabor ruling, the court held that plaintiff Philip Cannata, a music director, was a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception doctrine. The ruling affirmed a lower court's ruling to dismiss Cannata's claim for violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Cannata had argued that he had no ministerial training and was not ordained–and thus could not be considered a minister.

However, the court stated, "Cannata's lack of formal training in Catholic doctrine is immaterial; this is because the ministerial exception does not apply only to those who are ordained."

ECFA, citing a new report by Holland and Knight, explains how the court dropped its previous three-fold test:

Before Hosanna-Tabor, the Fifth Circuit articulated a three-factor test for determining when an employee qualifies as a minister within the meaning of the doctrine. It said the court must consider whether: (1) employment decisions regarding the position at issue are made largely on religious criteria; (2) the plaintiff was qualified and authorized to perform the ceremonies of the church; and, most importantly, (3) the employee engaged in activities traditionally considered ecclesiastical or religious, including attending to the religious needs of the faithful. But the court determined that the effect of Hosanna-Tabor was either to invalidate or modify the three-part test for two reasons: (1) Hosanna-Tabor requires a totality-of-the-circumstances analysis, rather than "rigid formula" or bright-line test; and (2) courts may not weight one factor (such as the third) over another.

CT has reported on the ministerial exception doctrine, and covered the Hosanna-Tabor case as it made its way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in January to strengthen the doctrine.

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