1.20.2012

Supreme Court of United States Recognizes “Ministerial Exception” to Workplace Discrimination Laws

In a decision released on January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously that a “called” teacher is a “minister” covered by the ministerial exception, grounded in Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, and that the ministerial exception operated as an affirmative defense, not a jurisdictional bar, to employment discrimination claims against a religious employer.
The case, Hosanna–Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., --- S.Ct. ----, 2012 WL 75047 (U.S.), arose out of an action brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against a member congregation of the Lutheran Church, alleging that a “called” teacher (a teacher who must complete certain academic requirements, including a course of theological study and is recognized as a “Minister of Religion, Commissioned”) at its school had been fired in retaliation for threatening to file an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit. The teacher, Cheryl Perich, intervened, claiming unlawful retaliation under both the ADA and state law for her dismissal due to the condition of narcolepsy.  Invoking what is known as the “ministerial exception,” Hosanna–Tabor argued that the suit was barred by the First Amendment because the claims concerned the employment relationship between a religious institution and one of its ministers.  The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted the congregation's motion for summary judgment. The EEOC and Perich appealed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated the lower court’s decision and remanded the matter, finding that Perich did not qualify as a “minister” under the exception. Certiorari was then granted to the congregation.
After a review of the facts of the case and a lengthy review of the history of religious freedoms in both Britain and the United States, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:
We agree that there is such a ministerial exception. The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. 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. 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.
In finding that the facts of the case supported the application of the “ministerial exception” against Perich, the Court stated: 
[t]he interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.
While this decision has been widely celebrated by religious groups and institutions as an affirmation of unfettered First Amendment rights with regard to employment decisions, the Supreme Court expressly limited its decision, holding that the “ministerial exception” only bars an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church's decision to fire her. The Court expressed no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers.


 

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