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Published Date: March 23, 2022

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Mrs. Billie B. McClure: The Irony of Gender Discrimination in an Egalitarian Ministry

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a longer creative nonfiction piece. For readers who want to learn more, Janay Garrick shares an extended, six-thousand-word version that intertwines her own story while diving deeper into the laws and discriminations she and Billie faced as women serving religious institutions. Click here to read it.

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof.

— The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, First Amendment of the United States Constitution, 1789

I’d like you to meet Mrs. Billie B. McClure. In 1970, Billie McClure served as a minister in the Salvation Army (you know, of the red tin buckets, the green bills and silver bells of Christmastide—the Salvation Army). Shortly after beginning her employ, Billie McClure realized she was getting paid less than her male counterparts, so she asked some questions. Nothing was done. So she asked more questions, pointed out facts. Still, nothing. She then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, a government agency housed beneath the U.S. Department of Human Rights Commission. Fewer than thirty days later, Billie McClure was fired, the Salvation Army claiming that its disappointment with Mrs. McClure’s performance as a minister of the Gospel arose long before her filing of charges.

Billie McClure then hired a lawyer, and took the Salvation Army to court.

For three years, Billie McClure had worked for the Salvation Army earning $35.50 a week. During those three years, she worked as a Welfare Casework Supervisor and a secretary, a worship leader and a Bible study teacher. She also worked as a newspaper distributor, a fundraiser, and a janitor—a jack-of-all-trades. Later, the courts would deem her, unequivocally, a minister.1

It Began With a Simple Question

“Do you think I might be considered for a raise?” Billie McClure likely said to her superior officer one January day. Or maybe she ventured, “Paul and I were talking the other day, and it seems that he is making more money than me. I believe we hold the same rank and authority. Don’t we, sir?”

Her superior officer would have pushed back from his desk. Blank stare. Or possibly this: “I’ll look into it and get back to you.”

I imagine Billie waited a week, then two, or three. Her superior officer would not get back to her, so she re-approached.

She knocks and pushes open his door. “Did you have a chance to look into my rank and pay?” Billie asks.

“Uh, yes,” he clears his throat. He shuffles some papers on his desk, doesn’t look up. “It seems that you are correctly ranked and paid. There will be no changes.”

Something about his words reminds Billie of butter and coarse salt about to turn. “What about my benefits?” she asks. Her superior looks up at her in the doorway, her pale hand on the door frame.

“Are you sure?” she continues. “Because The Position of Women in the Handbook says—”

“Billie, I’m in the middle of some travel arrangements right now,” he lifts his index finger, almost to his lips, and shakes his head. His blue eyes blink hard. “Would you mind closing the door on your way out?”

I imagine Billie McClure going home that day, closing and locking her front door, her children Darryl and Carrie gone to bed, or huddling around the radio in the kitchen. She falls onto the couch, takes out the Orders and Regulations for Officers, and reads: “Women have the right to an equal share with men in the work. A woman may hold any position of authority or power in the Army, from that of a local officer to that of a General.”2 She lets out a long sigh.

A woman General. Billie McClure holds this phrase in her mind. The radio hums. She stares at the wall—its shadows and light—and imagines Deborah seeding justice beneath the Palm, sitting in the long blue shade just outside of Bethel. The year is 1120 B.C. Her palm is broad, broader than most, but not boastful; its trunk layered and cool like a waterway facing east, like an aqueduct stone-stepping into a city full of thirsty women and men. Burnt orange dates cluster, gather, and listen. They hang like luminaries overhead. They sugar and drip, ache and listen to the voice of Deborah. What sound is that? What phonemes, what waves does wisdom throw? The people below, in the shade, murmuring, shouting, and praying; whispering, prying, and pleading. The people, endlessly making their cases before the judge.

A Question of Church and State

It was in 1970 in Atlanta, Georgia, that Billie McClure brought suit. November. A two-day hearing was held and evidence presented.

I picture District Court Judge William O’Kelley with a wooden ruler at hand, a pencil and pink eraser nearby. I picture him with a running tally of hours kept. The question before him scrawled on a yellow legal pad: “Minister? Yes or no.”

Billie McClure likely donned her best suit for court, a navy blue acrylic suit, the skirt falling just below her knees. She’d cut and sewn this suit ten years ago and hadn’t had much occasion to wear it since.

The judge leans in and listens. Billie McClure has been sworn in. “What were your weekly activities at Pascagoula?” the defense attorney asks. “And how about Atlanta, at Territorial Headquarters. What duties did you perform there?”

As Billie McClure answers, the court stenographer types and the judge jots. He jots: four hours in “corps activities” (What are “corps activities”? The defense drills. Can you explain “knee prayer drills”?). One hour teaching Sunday School class. One hour working in Bible class. (What, exactly, does “working” mean?)

“I spend a little over an hour in band practice and another hour in song practice,” Billie McClure says.

“Every week?”

“Yes, every week.”

“Have you ever dedicated a baby?”

“Yes. Once.”

“Performed a wedding ceremony? Sworn in a soldier? Led worship? Officiated a funeral?”

The courtroom is flanked by wooden walls, like the hull of a boat. The crest of a golden eagle expands above the judge’s head, a blue velour curtain ripples below.

“Mrs. McClure, are you ordained by the Salvation Army?”

“Yes.”

“In what year were you ordained?

“1967.”

On March 8, 1971, District Judge William O’Kelley rendered his decision. “The Court feels that any allowance, salary, or funds received by the Officers, their work assignments or their places of assignment, among any other grievances Mrs. McClure may have are matters of religious activity into which the Court may not inquire.”3

Mrs. Billie B. McClure was deemed a minister, and her case was thrown out of court.

“Should this decision hold,” wrote the National Organization for Women, “thousands of women will be without civil rights protections.”4

After losing at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Mrs. Billie B. McClure knocked on the door of the Supreme Court. It was the October Term, 1972, the Burger Court—five male justices including Thurgood Marshall and Harry Blackmun were seated at bench.

The Court denied review of her case, stating that Mrs. Billie B. McClure’s petition was “not timely filed,”5 when, by a count of the calendar’s moons, it clearly was.

 Longstanding Consequences

Today, in their legal claims, women employed by religious organizations provide strong evidence of gender discrimination and retaliation against them. Yet their cases do not prevail over the wall of separation between church and state. Attorney Leslie Griffin, Ministerial Exception expert, explains, “All these women who could not be ordained by their churches were made ministers by the courts just long enough to dismiss their lawsuits.”6

Now, as I proceed in my own lawsuit (Garrick v. Moody Bible Institute), I find it distressing how the American judiciary has empowered religious organizations to bar women from the ground for which we yearn: full equality as ministers in the church.

Notes:

  1. Sylvia Roberts, Marilyn Hall Patel, and Additional Contributors, McClure (Mrs. Billie B.) v. Salvation Army, U.S. Supreme Court Transcript of Record with Support Pleadings (5th Cir. 1972) (Gale, U.S. Supreme Court Records, 2011).
  2. Roberts and Patel, McClure.
  3. Roberts and Patel, McClure.
  4. Roberts and Patel, McClure.
  5. Roberts and Patel, McClure.
  6. Leslie C. Griffin, “Smith and Women’s Equality,” Scholarly Works 718 (2011), accessed 4 March 2022, http://scholars.law.unlv.edu/facpub/718.

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