Employment rights – ministers of religion

Posted: 22nd May 2013

The Supreme Court has ruled that a Methodist Minister was not an employee of the Church and so cannot pursue a claim for unfair dismissal .

Church 3Hayley Preston became an ordained Minister of the Methodist Church in 2003. In 2005, she was offered and accepted the position of Superintendent Minister in the Redruth Circuit for a period of five years. When she subsequently brought a claim for unfair dismissal, the Employment Tribunal (ET) ruled that she could not proceed with her claim because she was not an employee for the purposes of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) overturned the ET’s ruling and theCo urt of Appeal subsequently upheld the EAT’s decision, finding that it was correct in law to find that the relationship between the Church and Ms Preston was contractual and that her contract was one of service. She was therefore an employee of the Church and entitled to bring a claim of unfair dismissal. The President of the Methodist Conference appealed against this decision and the appeal was upheld by the Supreme Court by a majority of 4:1.

In the Supreme Court’s view, the EAT and the Court of Appeal had paid insufficient attention to the Methodist Church’s Deed of Union and the standing orders which were the foundation of Ms Preston’s relationship with it. The primary considerations in such cases should be the manner in which a Minister is engaged and the rules governing his or her service. The intentions of the parties concerned must be construed against their factual background, taking into account the rules and practices of the particular church and any special arrangements made with the particular minister.

In this instance, the Court found that the manner in which a Minister is engaged by the Methodist Church was incapable of being analysed in terms of contractual formation. The Methodist Ministry is a vocation by which candidates submit themselves to the discipline of the Church for life. No special arrangements existed in Ms Preston’s case and her rights and duties arose from her status in the constitution of the Church and not from any contract.