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January 20, 2012

Supreme Court Upholds Ministerial Exception In Discriminatory Termination Lawsuit

On January 11, 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, No. 10-533, that a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws bars certain employees of entities with a religious purpose from bringing employment discrimination lawsuits.

Under Title VII, religious organizations and schools have a right to favor applicants for employment and/or to limit employment to individuals of the same faith in certain positions. The statute also provides them with the right to make other employment decisions that are intended to promote the religious principles for which the entity is maintained or has been established. Under the First Amendment, federal courts have long-recognized a “ministerial exception” to federal employment discrimination laws for those employees who perform religious functions. The Supreme Court’s decision clarifies, and may potentially extend, the scope of the ministerial exception.

The EEOC brought suit against the Lutheran school alleging disability discrimination on behalf of Cheryl Perich, a teacher terminated shortly after informing her employer that she had been diagnosed with narcolepsy.   The trial court dismissed the suit, finding that Perich could not sue because of the ministerial exception.  The Sixth Circuit reversed, stating that Perich did not qualify for the exception, because she spent most of her time teaching secular subject matter rather than religion. 

While the Supreme Court did not establish a rigid formula defining when an employee qualifies for the exception, the Court found that the exception applies unequivocally to more than just those individuals who are ordained clergy or who are members of religious orders. In this case, Perich had received the title “Minister of Religion, Commissioned,” instructed students in religion and led students in prayer.   Accordingly, Chief Justice Roberts asserted that the Sixth Circuit placed too much weight on the fact that Perich mainly performed secular duties and that lay teachers performed many of the same religious duties as Perich.  The Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception applied to Perich even though she spent just 45 minutes each day on religious functions. In reaching the decision, the Court noted that the duties of individuals working in religious schools are often mixed and the comparative amount of time spent on religious duties cannot be “resolved by a stopwatch.”

The ministerial exception finds its foundation in the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment.  The Court stated: “By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”  Chief Justice Roberts further stated: “According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.”

One of the concurring opinions to the decision, written by Justice Alito and joined by Justice Kagan, may be indicative of the Court’s willingness to extend the scope of the exception. Justice Alito contended that the ministerial exception should apply to any employee “who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.”  Hence, this concurrence may be a foothold for additional protection for employment decisions by religious employers in positions other than those that teach or “minister” the faith.  For example, the ministerial exception may apply to executive leadership positions through which the religious organization seeks to ensure compliance with religious identity and principles during the day-to-day operation of the faith-based entity.

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We are pleased to discuss the application of religious exemptions to employment discrimination statutes and the ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws.  If you should have any questions about the application of these exceptions to employment positions at your organization, please contact us.