Churches Are Legally Firing Faith Leaders for Mental-Health Issues

In 2012, the Supreme Court approved a "ministerial exception." These are the consequences.

Church silhouette
In the wake of a 2012 Supreme Court ruling, churches across the U.S. are having issues dealing with depression among clergy.
Chris Beach/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / January 22, 2020 5:00 am

For many believers, a church can be a place of community and solace, the kind of space where profound connections can be made and where lives can improve. But an article in The Wall Street Journal explores the ironic flip side of that — namely, that church pastors and other employees struggling with depression and other mental-health issues might not find such a healing response. In fact, pastors who admit to a diagnosis of depression might lose their job as a result.

You might think that dismissing someone over a health issue is illegal. It is, just not for religious institutions. While the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits such behavior, a 2012 Supreme Court ruling argued that it did not apply to religious leaders. The Journal explains:

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a “ministerial exception” to the ADA. “It’s religious freedom,” said Myra Creighton, a lawyer in Atlanta who specializes in disability law. “Courts don’t want to get into telling churches who they may hire or fire.”

The 2012 case, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was described by The New York Times as “what may be [the Supreme Court’s] most significant religious liberty decision in two decades.” That particular case might have wider implications beyond the mental-health issues facing members of the clergy, but even that has caused plenty of pain and frustration over the last few years.

The Journal interviewed several ministers and pastors who were dismissed after revealing struggles with depression. It’s led to, according to the article, “a culture of secrecy surrounding mental health in many churches.” And some of the stories have tragic endings. It’s an unsettling look a place where faith and medicine collide — and no one’s left unscathed.

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