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Ministerial Exception Does not Exempt Churches from Workplace Harassment Claims

Prince of Peace Lutheran Church v. Linklater
No. 66 (Md. September 21, 2011)

by Gregory L. Arbogast, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

Prince of Peace Lutheran Church v. Linklater is an employment harassment case against a church, in which the Court of Appeals held that the ministerial exception did not apply to claims of: (1) sexual harassment and hostile work environment; and (2) gender discrimination. The Court also held that, due to the continuing violation doctrine, Plaintiff’s claims were not barred by the statute of limitations.

Plaintiff, Mary Linklater, is the former music director of Defendant, the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. Plaintiff claims that she was the victim of sexual harassment by members of Defendant’s staff. Plaintiff claims that she complained about the sexual harassment, but instead of ceasing the harassment, Plaintiff claims that members of Defendant’s staff continued to harass her. On one specific occasion, Plaintiff claims that someone posted a photograph of Plaintiff outside of her office, which was “stabbed” multiple times. Plaintiff claims that the harassment caused her emotional injuries.

As a result of the alleged harassment, Plaintiff filed a sixteen (16) count Complaint against the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Rufus Lusk, III, the Metropolitan Washington D.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Bishop Theodore Schneider (collectively, “Defendants”). The Circuit Court dismissed most of Plaintiff’s claims pre-suit on the grounds that the ministerial exception precluded the Court from entangling itself into Church doctrine. This appeal addresses whether the Circuit Court properly dismissed the claims of: (1) sexual harassment and hostile work environment; (2) quid pro quo sexual harassment; and (3) gender discrimination.

The ministerial exception is rooted in the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The Free Exercise Clause prohibits governmental action that encroaches upon the ability of a church to manage its internal affairs. The Establishment Clause prohibits excessive entanglement between government and religion. The Court noted that the ministerial exception does not apply when: (1) the statute has a secular legislative purpose; (2) the statute’s principal or primary effect neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) the statute does not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

In this case, the Court held that the ministerial exception applied to quid pro quo sexual harassment, but not sexual harassment or gender discrimination. The Court reasoned that it did not have to assess Plaintiff’s work duties or performance to determine whether Plaintiff had been sexually harassed or discriminated against. The Court, however, held that it would have to analyze Plaintiff’s work performance to decide quid pro quo sexual harassment, which would involve excessive entanglement in the Church’s affairs. Therefore, the Court upheld the dismissal of Count II, but it reversed the dismissal of Counts I & III.

The Court also analyzed whether Counts I & III were barred by the statute of limitations. Defendants argued that the alleged harassment occurred over two (2) years prior to this lawsuit and, therefore, were barred by the applicable two (2)-year statute of limitations. The Court, however, held that the harassment continued in the form of Defendants’ retaliatory actions and that Plaintiff initiated this suit within two (2) years of Defendants’ last act of retaliation. Therefore, the Court reinstated Counts I & III and remanded the case to the trial court.