Religious Colleges’ Employment Rights under the “Ministerial Exception” and When Disciplining an Employee for Sexually Related Conduct

By Davids, James A. | Texas Review of Law & Politics, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Religious Colleges’ Employment Rights under the “Ministerial Exception” and When Disciplining an Employee for Sexually Related Conduct


Davids, James A., Texas Review of Law & Politics


INTRODUCTION

Edward Nagy stretched his lower back after slowly lifting himself from his office chair. "What's next?" thought the president of John Hus college, as he ambled to the window to see the rolling hills of central Iowa as the Indian summer sun of early November lit the quad in front of Old Main.

The current stressor in President Nagy's life was Jeff Varga. Jeff was as close to Hus College "royalty" as one could get. Jeff's great-great-grandfather was one of Hus's early presidents, and his maternal great-aunt is married to the recently retired Hus Vice President of Finances. Jeff's parents are both graduates of Hus, as are all three of their children. After Jeff graduated, he returned home to Chicago for his master's degree in Student Services, and when a position opened as a Resident Director in "Old Laddie," Hus's all-male dorm named after St. Ladislaus, Jeff applied and Hus hired him for this full-time position. Jeff's charges in the dorm continually give him good evaluations, as does the Director of Student Affairs to whom Jeff reports. Jeff, who graduated from Hus with a degree in divinity, completed an online Master of Divinity degree from Chicago Theological School. He faithfully attends the Metropolitan Community Church in Des Moines, which ordained him and then hired him as its part-time Assistant Pastor for Youth Ministries in February 2015.

As occurs probably on every college campus in our nation, Hus students meet informally to discuss current events, and over the past several years these discussions have included LGBT rights and privileges. As a student, Jeff was a vocal proponent of increasing societal benefits to the LGBT community, one time writing a letter to the student newspaper editor applauding the Iowa Supreme Court for its courage in ruling that LGBTs have the right to obtain a state marriage license.1 Jeff's gay advocacy did not dissipate after graduating from Hus; in fact, Jeff's master's thesis in divinity school focused on how the Christian church had historically misinterpreted the "sin of Sodom." Jeff's thesis concluded that this Old Testament story did not prohibit consensual gay sexual relations, just nonconsensual relations. Moreover, as Jeff argued in his thesis, Jesus as the epitome of love never condemned homosexuality in his public ministry as recorded in the Gospels.

Jeff's Resident Director apartment in Old Laddie has become quite renowned on campus for its "bull sessions" that often cover contemporary issues like gay marriage. Jeff often expresses his opinion on the subjects discussed. Rumors have circulated on campus of occasional consensual sex in Old Laddie. Once each in the last two years a male resident of Old Laddie has walked into his room and discovered his roommate sleeping with another male in a bunk bed. These incidents were reported to Jeff, who took no further action to investigate or otherwise pursue these infractions of Hus College rules.

The event that precipitated Hus's firing of Jeff was quite innocent. In October 2015, the Knoxville Weekly ran a story on page six about the first gay couple in Marion County getting married. The story included a photo of the couple saying their vows, and included in the picture the pastor officiating at this wedding, none other than Jeff Varga. Someone in the Hus Democrat Club, seeking to promote its social agenda, posted copies of the article and picture on the main doors of St. Laddie and each of the academic and administrative buildings on campus, which of course brought this matter to the attention of the Director of Student Affairs.

In the conversation between Jeff and the director that ensued the morning after the picture appeared, Jeff of course admitted that he did, in fact, officiate at the wedding, and that this was not the first gay wedding he had performed. The director reminded Jeff that he had signed the Hus College Statement of Faith upon becoming a Hus employee (and had affirmed this statement in each subsequent annual employment contract), and that this statement, consistent with the official position of the Hungarian Reformed Church, had limited marriage to one man and one woman. …

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