3.11.2010

Religious School Teacher Does Not Qualify for “Ministerial Exception” Under the ADA

On March 9, 2010, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, Sixth Cir. Case No. 09-1134/1135, vacating an award of summary judgment in favor of the employer.

This case arose out of the termination of Plaintiff Cheryl Perich’s employment as a teacher at Hossana-Tabor School. Hossana-Tabor School, which is affiliated with a Luthern Church, was advertised as providing a “Christ-centered education.” Ms. Perich taught both a religion class and secular subjects using secular textbooks. She also led each class in prayer three times a day. The court concluded that Ms. Perich’s activities devoted to religion consumed approximately 45 minutes of the seven-hour school day.

After Ms. Perich filed a complaint against Hossana-Tabor alleging retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the United States District Court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that it could not inquire into the plaintiff’s claims because they fell within the “ministerial exception” to the ADA. The “ministerial exception” allows religious entities to give employment preference to individuals of a particular religion and to require that applicants and employees conform to the religious tenants of the organization. For the ministerial exception to bar an employment discrimination claim, (1) the employer must be a religious institution, and (2) the employee must be a ministerial employee.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a decision of first impression in the circuit, held that Ms. Perich was improperly classified as a ministerial employee. In making its decision, the court emphasized that Ms. Perich’s “primary duties” were secular. The court also concluded that in analyzing Ms. Perich’s ADA claim, the District Court would not improperly be required to analyze church doctrine. This decision serves as a reminder to employers to thoughtfully and carefully analyze any decision to rely upon exceptions to statutes such as the ADA. As demonstrated by this court’s decision, these exceptions are often narrowly construed to protect employees.

Author: Ryan Bonina
            614.723.2012
            rbonina@ralaw.com

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