Plaintiff, a teacher at St. Mary's Elementary School in Mount Morris, filed this action against defendants, alleging violation of the Michigan Civil Rights Act (CRA), MCL 37.2101 et seq., and violation of the Whistleblowers' Protection Act (WPA), MCL 15.361 et seq., after her contract was not renewed for the 2005-2006 school year. In June 2006, the trial court granted defendants' motion for summary disposition of the WPA claim pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(10). Defendants later moved for summary disposition of the CRA claim under MCR 2.116(C)(4), arguing that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over that claim pursuant to the "ministerial exception." The trial court denied that motion. In a prior interlocutory appeal, this Court held that "the ministerial exception exists in Michigan," vacated the order denying the motion, and remanded the case to the trial court "for an analysis of, and conclusions regarding, whether [plaintiff] was a `ministerial' employee." Weishuhn v. Catholic Diocese of Lansing, 279 Mich.App. 150, 152, 756 N.W.2d 483 (2008). On remand, the trial court concluded that the ministerial exception applied to plaintiff and, accordingly, dismissed her CRA claim pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(4). Plaintiff appeals as of right, challenging the dismissal of both her WPA claim and her CRA claim. We affirm.
I. BASIC FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
In Weishuhn, 279 Mich.App. at 153-155, 756 N.W.2d 483, this Court summarized the relevant underlying facts as follows:
This Court then concluded that the ministerial exception exists in Michigan,
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
We review de novo trial court decisions on motions for summary disposition. Id. at 155, 756 N.W.2d 483. We also review de novo the trial court's decision on the ministerial exception because this issue is a question of law. Id. at 175-176, 756 N.W.2d 483; In re Capuzzi Estate, 470 Mich. 399, 402, 684 N.W.2d 677 (2004). Constitutional issues are also reviewed de novo on appeal. Weishuhn, 279 Mich.App. at 155, 756 N.W.2d 483.
III. CIVIL RIGHTS ACT CLAIM
With regard to the first factor the trial court was directed to consider, we find no error in the trial court's determination that plaintiff's duties were primarily religious in nature. Plaintiff argues that the trial court ignored evidence that the majority of her classes were mathematics classes. We disagree. Although plaintiff was hired in part to teach mathematics, she also taught religion and she was actively involved in religious planning and activities. She was involved in planning
Therefore, we find no error in the trial court's conclusion that plaintiff's duties were primarily religious, notwithstanding the fact that she taught four mathematics and two religion classes in her last year of teaching.
With regard to the second factor, plaintiff's teaching of religion classes and her involvement in planning masses and preparing students for confirmation and reconciliation services clearly have religious significance. Further, plaintiff's admission that she incorporated her religious teachings into her mathematics classes indicates all aspects of her work had religious significance. Thus, we agree with the trial court that this factor also weighs in favor of finding that plaintiff was a ministerial employee.
In its analysis of the third factor, the trial court found that plaintiff's position was primarily religious because, as a teacher of religion, she was involved in proselytizing on behalf of the church. We agree. As the trial court noted, educating and indoctrinating the children was important to and furthered the purposes of the church. Thus, plaintiff's involvement in planning masses and preparing students for confirmation and reconciliation were connected to defendants' doctrinal mission, and these activities were important to defendants' spiritual and pastoral mission. Moreover, plaintiff admitted in her interview with The Catholic Times that even in her math classes, she did not separate religion and that it was part of her mission to promote and reinforce Christian ideals.
The fourth factor presents a closer question, given that plaintiff did not assume a liturgical role within the entire congregation. Still, she was intimately involved in liturgical planning of worship services, as well as confirmation and reconciliation services, for students. Further, her role as a religion teacher involved propagation of defendants' doctrine to students, which included guidance in worship services and rituals.
We conclude that, in light of this record, the trial court did not err by determining
Plaintiff argues that the facts in this case more closely resemble those in cases cited in Weishuhn that found the ministerial exception did not apply to teachers. This argument misconstrues the Court's discussion of those opinions in Weishuhn. This Court cited cases such as Redhead v. Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 440 F.Supp.2d 211, 220-222 (E.D.N.Y., 2006), and Guinan v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, 42 F.Supp.2d 849, 853 (S.D.Ind., 1998), and noted that these courts "have ruled that the ministerial exception did not apply to teachers." Weishuhn, 279 Mich.App. at 164-165, 756 N.W.2d 483. However, this Court also reviewed cases in which the contrary view was followed. Id. at 163-164, 756 N.W.2d 483. The Court ruled that the ministerial exception could apply to plaintiff depending upon the documentary evidence, id. at 178-179, 756 N.W.2d 483, and rejected the position that the ministerial exception is inapplicable to teachers. Instead, the Court opted for a broader totality of the circumstances test. Id. To the extent that plaintiff is requesting we reconsider that determination, we must decline. Under the law of the case, we are bound by Weishuhn. Sinicropi v. Mazurek, 279 Mich.App. 455, 465, 760 N.W.2d 520 (2008).
For these reasons, the trial court did not err by finding that plaintiff was a ministerial employee and that defendants were therefore entitled to summary disposition of plaintiff's CRA claim pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(4).
IV. WHISTLEBLOWERS' PROTECTION ACT CLAIM
Plaintiff also challenges the trial court's determination that she failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact with respect to her WPA claim, thereby entitling defendants to summary disposition of that claim under MCR 2.116(C)(10). We find it unnecessary to decide whether dismissal of plaintiff's WPA claim was proper under MCR 2.116(C)(10) because we agree with defendants that the WPA claim is also subject to the ministerial exception.
Michigan courts have not yet addressed the applicability of the ministerial exception to WPA claims. The ministerial exception is rooted in the First Amendment and, thus, generally takes precedence over statutorily based claims. As explained in Weishuhn, 279 Mich.App. at 152, 756 N.W.2d 483, it is a "constitutionally compelled exception to the application of employment-discrimination and civil rights statutes to religious institutions and their `ministerial' employees." Although the CRA and the WPA are distinct acts, they have as a common purpose the prevention of discrimination in employment on the basis of statutorily recognized factors rooted in public policy. Indeed, the Michigan Supreme Court has held that "`[w]histleblower statute[s][are] analogous to antiretaliation provisions of other employment discrimination statutes'" and "`the policies underlying these similar statutes warrant parallel treatment....'" Shallal v. Catholic Social Servs. of Wayne Co., 455 Mich. 604, 617, 566 N.W.2d 571 (1997), quoting Rouse v. Farmers State Bank of Jewell, Iowa, 866 F.Supp. 1191, 1204 (N.D.Iowa, 1994). Thus, the rationale for recognizing the existence of the ministerial exception to a claim under the CRA seems to apply equally to a claim under the WPA.
Although we located no federal cases specifically involving "whistleblower" claims, there have been several involving Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17
In Gellington v. Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, 203 F.3d 1299 (C.A.11, 2000), the plaintiff was an ordained minister who alleged that he was retaliated against and constructively discharged by the defendant in violation of Title VII. Id. at 1300. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the district court's grant of summary disposition, concluding that the ministerial exception applied to the claim. Id. at 1301. The court noted that "applying Title VII to the employment relationship between a church and its clergy would involve `excessive government entanglement with religion' as prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment" because "[a] church's view on whether an individual is suited for a particular clergy position cannot be replaced by the courts' without entangling the government in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice." Id. at 1304 (quotation marks and citation omitted).
In Elvig v. Calvin Presbyterian Church, 375 F.3d 951, 965 (C.A.9, 2004), the plaintiff alleged that while serving as the associate pastor for defendant, the lead pastor "engaged in sexually harassing and intimidating conduct toward her, creating a hostile working environment" and that when she made a formal complaint, filed a claim of discrimination with the EEOC and received her right-to-sue letter, she was placed on unpaid leave and subsequently her employment was terminated. Id. at 953. The plaintiff had "alleged five retaliatory adverse employment actions: (1) the removal of certain duties, (2) her suspension, (3) her termination, (4) the refusal to permit the circulation of her personal information form and (5) retaliatory harassment in the form of verbal abuse and intimidation." Id. at 965. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit noted that "the first four of these actions are protected ministerial decisions" because "[a] church's selection of its ministers is unfettered, and its true reasons— whatever they may be—are therefore unassailable." Id. at 961, 965. Simply put, "the [c]hurch cannot be required to articulate a justification for its ministerial decisions...." Id. at 961-962. On the basis of these holdings, the Ninth Circuit upheld the dismissal of the plaintiff's retaliation claims.
In Petruska v. Gannon Univ., 462 F.3d 294 (C.A.3, 2006), the plaintiff was a chaplain working for a private Catholic university. Id. at 299-300. The plaintiff claimed that on the basis of her opposition to sexual harassment and her gender, the university retaliated by restructuring itself in a manner that constructively discharged her. Id. at 300-302. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concluded that "the First Amendment protects [the university's] right to restructure—regardless
At least one state has explicitly applied the ministerial exception to state whistleblower claims. In Archdiocese of Miami, Inc. v. Minagorri, 954 So.2d 640 (Fla.App., 2007),
Thus, the general consensus is that "[t]he ministerial exception, as we conceive of it, operates to bar any claim, the resolution of which would limit a religious institution's right to select who will perform particular spiritual functions." Petruska, 462 F.3d at 307; see also Hartwig v. Albertus Magnus College, 93 F.Supp.2d 200, 211 n. 13 (D.Conn., 2000) (the appropriate analysis is the religiously affiliated nature of the institution and the employee's role there, "not the particular issues which spring from the termination of his employment relationship and the resulting claims"). We agree with this approach and adopt it as our position. Accordingly, we hold that the ministerial exception may be applied to WPA claims that involve a religious institution and a ministerial employee.
We recognize that it seems unjust that employees of religious institutions can be fired without recourse for reporting illegal activities, particularly given that members of the clergy, as well as teachers, are mandated reporters. MCL 722.623(1)(a). However, to conclude otherwise would result in pervasive violations of First Amendment protections.
Furthermore, we agree with the Third Circuit that the ministerial exception:
Thus, some claims by ministerial employees are not necessarily foreclosed by the ministerial exception. For example, certain "independent" tort and contract actions have survived, see Petruska, 462 F.3d at 310-311 (holding that a negligent misrepresentation claim was unaffected by the ministerial exception because its resolution "does not turn on the lawfulness of the decision to restructure, but rather upon the truth or falsity of the assurances that she would be evaluated on her merits" and that the breach of contract claim could also move forward because enforcement "in no way constitutes a state-imposed limit upon a church's free exercise rights," although it would be subject to an evaluation of whether resolution "required inquiry into the church's ecclesiastical policy"); Elvig, 375 F.3d at 965 (holding that "retaliatory harassment in the form of verbal abuse and intimidation" was not a protected employment decision and, therefore, the plaintiff's retaliatory harassment claim was not barred by the application of the ministerial exception), as well as claims where the termination decision is made by a non-religious entity, see Maruani v. AER Servs., Inc., unpublished memorandum opinion of the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, issued September 18, 2006 (Docket No. 06-176), 2006 WL 2666302 (holding that the plaintiff's whistleblower claim could proceed because "the Court can envision a situation wherein [the plaintiff] could contend that the rabbis' determination did not in fact motivate [the nonreligious entity employer] to take the adverse employment action without challenging the validity, existence or plausibility of the religious doctrine itself").
However, none of these exceptions apply to the present case because plaintiff's WPA claim alleges retaliation by termination of employment. Termination of a ministerial employee by a religious institution is an absolutely protected action under the First Amendment, regardless of the reason for doing so. Petruska, 462 F.3d at 307, 309; Elvig, 375 F.3d at 961. In light of our affirmance of the trial court's conclusion that plaintiff was a ministerial employee, the trial court properly granted summary disposition as to plaintiff's WPA claim, albeit for the wrong reason. Taylor v. Laban, 241 Mich.App. 449, 458, 616 N.W.2d 229 (2000).