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The “Ministerial Exception” Revisited

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has accepted review of DeBruin v. St. Patrick (2010 AP 2705) to determine whether religious organizations are immune from common law breach of contract actions brought by ministerial employees.  The Defendant has argued that it is immune from such an action under Coulee Catholic Schools v. LIRC (2009 WI 88, 320 Wis. 2d 275, 768 N.W.2d 868 (2009)), the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, adn the Freedom of Conscience Clauses in Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution.  The Plaintiff contends that the Defendant should not be immune from this action because any analysis by the Court would be neutral and non-intrusive.  

This case is of particular importance because only three years ago, in Coulee, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Freedom of Conscience Clauses in the Wisconsin Constitutions protect religious organizations from employment discrimination lawsuits where it is shown that the “employee’s position is important and closely linked with the religious mission of the organization.”  DeBruin, 2010 AP 2705, citing Coulee, 320 Wis. 2d 275, par. 67, 88.  That said, the Coulee Court went on to state that “[w]e do not mean to suggest that anything interfering with a religious organization is totally prohibited.”  Coulee, 320 Wis. 2d 275, par. 65.