Professor Eva Palmer was terminated from Liberty University after teaching art classes at the school for more than thirty years. She brought a lawsuit challenging her termination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which prohibits discrimination against workers who are age 40 or older.
In defending against the lawsuit, Liberty University—a private, Christian school—argued that Palmer was a “minister,” and so, under a legal doctrine known as the “ministerial exception,” the school could not be held liable for any alleged discrimination.
The United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia rejected Liberty University’s ministerial-exception defense and held that because Palmer was not a minister, she was protected under the ADEA. In a separate ruling, the court held that although the ADEA protects Palmer from age discrimination, she had not shown that the school had terminated her in violation of the ADEA. Both parties appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
On July 25, 2022, Americans United filed an amicus brief in support of Palmer on the ministerial-exception issue. We argued that, contrary to what Liberty University urged, the court should consider ministerial-exception defenses only after it has considered the merits of Palmer’s discrimination claim. We further explained that deeming Palmer a minister would encourage religious employers to game the system and avoid responsibility for unlawful employment actions—all without serving the ministerial exception’s purpose.
On June 30, 2023, the Fourth Circuit ruled against Palmer, finding that she failed to demonstrate age discrimination and that there was thus no need to consider the application of the ministerial exception. Palmer’s request for rehearing en banc was denied on July 28, 2023.