Are Catholic law school professors really ministers?
A Michigan trial judge will decide that next week in a controversial employment dispute involving Ave Maria School of Law, which is trying to declare law professors as ministers to avoid a wrongful termination suit from proceeding.
In the latest twist to the two-year-old suit filed in state court by a three former professors, Tom Monaghan, the school's founder and financier, filed a motion last month claiming that the law professors are "ministerial." Therefore, he argues, because the school is a religious institution, the administration over these minister-professors is exempt from civil trial court under the "Establishment and Free Exercise of religious clauses of the First Amendment."
Monaghan also claims that the institution is eligible for "ecclesiastical abstention," requiring courts to "abstain from inquiring into, or interfering with, governance of the religious institution."
"We got a curveball thrown into the case, and the law school is shooting itself in the foot," said Deborah Gordon of the Law Offices of Deborah Gordon in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who is representing the law professors. Gordon is aghast at the theory that Catholic law school professors are ministers. "Are you people kidding or what," Gordon said, baffled by Monoghan's theory. Gordon thinks this argument could draw the ire of the ABA.
Of course, if Catholic Law Profs are indeed ministers, this would open the door to some very lucrative tax advantages, including most importantly the housing allowance permitted by §107. See Warren v. Commissioner, 114 T.C. No. 23 (2000).