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Court applies broad interpretation to "ministerial exception" to employee statutory rights

Alyce Conlon sued her employer, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship/USA (IVCF), after she was fired for filing for a divorce.  Conlon was counselor for nearly 30 years for the Christian organization, when she was placed on paid leave after disclosing that her long-term marriage was in trouble.  Her supervisors concluded that she was not working hard enough to salvage the marriage and fired her.  When she sued, claiming a violation of her civil rights, the IVCF argued that she was a "minister" who could claim no protection under federal or state employment laws.  The Grand Rapids federal judge agreed with the employer.

On appeal, she argued that her counseling position did not give her employer the protection of the "ministerial exclusion."  She also argued that the IVCF wasn't a "church" and that applying civil employment rights to the IVCF would not violate the establishment clause of the Constitution.  The Court of Appeals rejected her appeal.  It noted that her position was "spiritual" in nature and the IVCF did not need to be an actual church to claim immunity from governmental regulation of its spiritual leaders.

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