ANNAPOLIS – This week, the Maryland Court of Appeals sorted out arguments over the forensic validity of testing the lead in bullets, over requiring translation of jury waivers into Korean, and over the question of whether arbitration precludes a lawsuit.
But one legal issue in particular stuck out: Is a church organist a minister?
That question came before the court on Friday in the form of a wrongful termination, breach of contract and emotional distress suit against the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington filed by a former organist who is asking for over $2.4 million in compensatory and punitive damages. William T. Moersen played the organ, piano and keyboard off-and-on for the St. Catherine Laboure Parish in Wheaton for nearly 29 years, starting at the age of 11. He played at mass about three times a week and at weddings, funerals and other church events when needed.
The key argument in the case comes down to whether or not Moersen’s job could be considered part of the church’s ministry. Maryland case law provides religious organizations with a “ministerial exception” which says that the state cannot interfere in church hiring and firing of “ecclesiastical” employees. If the court finds that Moersen’s organ playing constituted a ministerial function, his suit will be blocked from going forward.
“Courts are poor substitutes for religiously recognized decision makers when making these calls,” said Emmet T. Flood, the attorney for the Archdiocese.
Moersen was fired in February 2002 following a dispute over accusations by Moersen that he was sexually abused by a choirmaster between 1958 and 1964, when he was first employed by the parish. Moersen demanded compensation, rejected the amount the church offered, and was fired.
The parish failed to give the 90-day termination notice required under a 2001 contract with Moersen according to court documents.
The contract provided Moersen with a salary of $26,500 a year and benefits. He claims that he was only a hired hand who served no ministerial function, comparing himself to singers who are hired by churches, regardless of their faith.
Such singers, said Moersen, “are just doing it for the money, which is what I was doing it for. I’ve played for synagogues, Christian Science and all kinds of religions.”
But Flood said during his argument before the court that an employee whose full-time job is playing organ at services “falls comfortably” within the ministerial exception, regardless of other employment.
L. Jeanette Rice, Moersen’s attorney, said that only certain employees, like a choir directors or Catholic school principals, should fall under the exception. “If Mr. Moersen is a ministerial employee, then everyone is a ministerial employee,” she said in an interview.
Susan Gibbs, communications director for the Archdiocese, said liturgical employees, which include organists, clearly fall under the exception.
“The reason we have liturgy is ministry,” she said.
Under his contract, Moersen was supposed to have been a member of all the parish’s liturgical committees, though he says he never attended any meetings.
Flood said a church organist must know more than just how to play the organ, but also how the music fits in the liturgy.
“Our position is . . . that’s fine, that’s enough,” he said. “He was not merely just an organist. You can’t use a CD player, you can’t use just a player piano.”
Court of Appeals Judge Dale R. Cathell seemed sympathetic to the argument that playing as part of a religious ceremony constitutes a religious function, even though it can be done professionally outside of the church.
“Christenings are a religious ceremony, but a mother can go home and do the same thing every day,” he said.
Julie Vidrick Evans, dean of the Potomac chapter of the American Guild of Organists, said in an interview that an organist’s ministerial function should be something agreed upon when the musician is hired. She echoed Rice’s point about certain employees falling under the exception.
“When you’re in a leadership position like a choir director, you’re generally considered part of the ministerial staff,” she said.
James Naughton, director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said the distinction can be hard to pin down, as some musicians are full- time, others are part-time, and still others just come in and play when needed. “The situation with our organists would vary from parish to parish,” he said. “It would kind of be like the difference between a freelancer and a staff writer.”