Yesterday, the UK’s Supreme Court decided an important ministerial employment case, President of the Methodist Conference v. Preston. In many respects, Preston tracks the US Supreme Court’s recent ministerial exception case, Hosanna-Tabor, though the British case does not refer to Hosanna-Tabor and doesn’t explicitly address church autonomy concerns.

In Preston, a Methodist minister sought relief under UK employment law for unfair dismissal. The question turned on whether Preston was an “employee” for purposes of the law, which, in turn, depended on whether she worked for the church under a “contract of employment.”  By a 4-1 vote, the Supreme Court held that she did not.

In the past, Lord Sumption’s opinion explained, UK cases drew a bright line between clergy, who were understood to hold offices of an essentially spiritual nature, and mere employees. But these rulings depended on “social instincts” that do not obtain in today’s more “secular and regulated context.” Today, the question turns on the precise terms that govern a minister’s employment. In other words, the UK courts must apply what Americans would recognize as a “neutral principles of law” approach. Courts must look at the terms of a minister’s employment in light of the surrounding circumstances to see what the parties reasonably intended.

Here, Lord Sumption wrote, the context made plain that Methodist ministers like Preston are not contractual employees. Preston had no contract with the church; her employment was governed completely by the church’s constitution. Her ordination, conferred by the laying on of hands, was understood to be a lifelong covenant. Her stipend was not seen as consideration for her work, but as a subsidy to allow her to serve the Lord. In short, by its terms, ministry in the Methodist Church was “a vocation, by which candidates submit themselves to the discipline of the church for life.” No special circumstances in Preston’s case altered this conclusion.

In its insistence on looking to the particular circumstances of a plaintiff’s employment, Preston echoes the flexible approach to the definition of minister that one sees in Hosanna-Tabor. Unlike the American court, though, the British court didn’t much address the underlying church autonomy values that ministerial exceptions serve. In large part, this reticence results from the different texts the courts were construing. Preston is a straightforward statutory question without constitutional implications; Hosanna-Tabor, by contrast, depends on an understanding of the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment.

(H/t: Law & Religion UK).

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