U.S. Supreme Court recognizes ministerial exception

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Posted on 01/31/2012 at 01:28 PM by The Newsroom

On January 11, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged a 'ministerial' exception to virtually all employment discrimination laws, and held that a teacher at a Lutheran school could not pursue a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Although federal appellate courts have long recognized a ministerial exception to anti-discrimination laws, the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opinion issued this month represented the first time the Supreme Court recognized such an exception. Citing First Amendment principles, the Court explained that religious organizations may make employment decisions without government interference.  As such, the ministerial exception bars application of employment discrimination laws to claims arising out of an employment relationship between a religious organization and its ministers.  After the Hosanna-Tabor opinion, employers may still struggle to decide exactly which employees qualify as a 'minister' for purposes of the exception. The Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School belonged to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  The Synod classifies school teachers into two categories – 'called' and 'lay.'  Teachers must meet certain academic and religious requirements to be eligible to be considered called.  Once called, a teacher is given the formal title 'Minister of Religion, Commissioned.'  Lay teachers are not required to complete the extra training, and in fact, are not even required to be Lutheran.  Lay teachers often perform the same duties as called teachers, but are only hired when called teachers are unavailable. Teacher Cheryl Perich began teaching at Hosanna-Tabor as a lay teacher in 1999, but became a called teacher after completing the required training.  While Perich spent the majority of her time teaching secular subjects, she also taught a religion class a few times a week, led students in daily prayer and devotionals, took students to a weekly chapel service, and herself led chapel service about twice a year. Perich and Hosanna-Tabor ran into a conflict when Perich tried to return from medical leave she took after she developed narcolepsy.  When the school suggested she resign, Perich threatened to sue under the ADA.  Ultimately, the school fired her when she tried to return to her job.  The termination letter cited 'insubordination and disruptive behavior' as well as her threat to sue as reasons for her dismissal.  According to the school, the threat to sue violated the Synod's belief that disputes should be resolved internally.  Perich filed a charge of discrimination and retaliation with the EEOC, the EEOC brought an ADA lawsuit against Hosanna-Tabor, and Perich intervened in the court action. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Hosanna Tabor, concluding a ministerial exception bars claims arising from the employment relationship between a religious institution and one of its ministers.  Although it recognized a ministerial exception exists, the Sixth Circuit disagreed Perich fit the exception.  Putting special emphasis on the fact her duties as a called teacher mirrored her duties as a lay teacher, the circuit court concluded that Perich did not quality as a 'minister' under the exception. Reversing the Sixth Circuit, the Supreme Court determined Perich did qualify as a minister for purposes of the exception.  The Court explained the exception applies to more than just the leader of a religious organization, but it did not adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister. According to the Supreme Court, the Sixth Circuit gave too little weight to Perich's title of commissioned minister, and the significant religious training that entailed.  Additionally, the Sixth Circuit gave too much weight to Perich's performance of secular duties, and to the fact that lay teachers performed the same religious duties as Perich.  While the amount of time spent on religious activities may be relevant to the inquiry, those facts are not dispositive and cannot be considered in isolation.  Perich held herself out as a minister, had been commissioned as a minister, had received significant religious training, and her job duties reflected a role in conveying the church's message.  The Court did not articulate a bright line test, but said these facts were sufficient to bring Perich within the exception. The Hosanna-Tabor opinion makes it clear a ministerial exception precludes discrimination lawsuits by ministers against religious employers.  The biggest question that remains is who, exactly, will be considered a 'minister' for purposes of the flexible rule.  We know the exception reaches beyond just leaders of the organization, and it is not limited to only those workers who perform exclusively religious functions.  The majority opinion would follow a multi-factor analysis, but we still don't know the exact contours of the definition of 'minister.'  Additionally, employers should remember this opinion does not apply to any one particular religion.  The Court also left open the question of whether a ministerial exception bars other kinds of lawsuits by employees against a religious employer, such as breach of contract or tort actions.


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