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Supreme Court Recognizes Ministerial Exception

By: Leslie A. Mariotti
January 23, 2012

In a major decision regarding how the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") applies to religious employers, the United States Supreme Court has unanimously recognized a "ministerial exception," grounded in the First Amendment. The Court's decision bars employment discrimination claims brought pursuant to the ADA by ministers against the religious institutions that employ them.  The exception, in essence, grants religious institutions the freedom to select their leaders without government interference.

The plaintiff in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 2012 WL 75047 (S.Ct. Jan. 11, 2011), a teacher at a religious based school, brought a retaliation suit against her former employer, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School. As a "call" teacher at the school, the plaintiff had completed religious training and was given the title "Minister of Religion, Commissioned." She taught both secular and religious curriculum and regularly led student prayer and worship. In total, she spent 45 minutes of the seven hour school day on religious instruction. The plaintiff claimed she was fired after informing Hosanna-Tabor that she was planning to bring a disability discrimination claim against the school.

Hosanna-Tabor argued that the suit was barred by the ministerial exception. It claimed the plaintiff was a minister who was fired for a religious reason, namely violating church doctrine by threatening litigation instead of trying to resolve her dispute with the Church internally. The District Court agreed and granted summary judgment to Hosanna-Tabor, finding that because the plaintiff was a minister, it could not inquire any further into her claims of retaliation.

In an opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court, for the first time, recognized the application of the ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws. The Court reasoned that while the interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination laws is undoubtedly important, "so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission." The Court found that the Establishment Clause prevents government from appointing ministers and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own. The practical result of the decision is that religious institutions can fire employees who fall within the ministerial exception without violating the ADA.

The challenging question for religious employers will be identifying those employees who  fall within the ministerial exception. The Supreme Court refused to adopt a "rigid formula" for deciding when an employee qualifies under the exception. The Court held that it was enough to conclude, based on the circumstances of her employment, that plaintiff was a "minister" within the meaning of the exception. The Court noted that plaintiff was held out by the Church as a minister; held herself out as a minister; and performed significant religious duties to advance the Lutheran faith. In reaching a contrary conclusion, the Court of Appeals erred by giving too much weight to the fact that lay teachers performed the same religious duties as the plaintiff and by placing too much emphasis on the plaintiff's performance of secular duties.

The primary lesson to be learned from the Court's decision is that the ministerial exception safeguards a religious institution's hiring and firing decisions, regardless of whether the decisions are made for religious reasons. Because the plaintiff was a "minister" under the ministerial exception, the First Amendment required dismissal of her employment discrimination suit.