Jan 13, 2012

Supreme Court Recognizes the “Ministerial Exception” to Anti-Discrimination Laws

Employment discrimination laws prohibit discrimination based on certain criteria, including, among others, race, gender, religion, and disability. Such laws generally apply to secular and religious employers with equal force. However, where the employee is a “minister” employed by a religious institution, courts have invoked a “ministerial exception” and refused to apply anti-discrimination laws to employees who qualify as ministers.

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Docket No. 10-553 (Jan. 11, 2012), the United States Supreme Court recognized the ministerial exception for the first time. Respondent Cheryl Perich served as a “called” teacher and commissioned minister at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School (the “School”) before being fired after taking disability leave. The E.E.O.C. and Perich filed suit, alleging that the School violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Relying on the ministerial exception, the federal district court ruled in favor of the School, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The Court of Appeals acknowledged the ministerial exception, but determined that Perich was not a “minister.”

The Supreme Court reversed, recognizing the ministerial exception and holding that Perich was a “minister.” The Court held that the ministerial exception is rooted in both the “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses of the First Amendment: “By forbidding the ‘establishment of religion’ and guaranteeing the ‘free exercise thereof,’ the [First Amendment] ensured that the new Federal Government … would have no role in filling ecclesiastical offices. … Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so … interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs” in violation of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court then analyzed whether Perich was a minister. The Court held that the ministerial exception is “not limited to the head of a religious congregation,” but declined to “adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.” Rather, “given all the circumstances of her employment,” Perich clearly was a minister. The School identified, commissioned, and held out Perich as a minister and required her to obtain six years of religious training. Perich had an “important role” in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission. Moreover, Perich called herself a minister, taught religion four days per week, led prayer three times per day, and led school-wide chapel twice a year. The Court rejected the Court of Appeals’ reliance on the small amount of time Perich engaged in religious duties, holding time spent on religious tasks to be only one of many factors to consider.

Under these facts, Perich was a minister and not subject to the ADA’s protection. The Court further held that the ministerial exception applied regardless of whether the employee was terminated for a religious reason, and that the ministerial exception was an affirmative defense rather than a jurisdictional bar. Finally, the Court declined to address whether the ministerial exception applied to any other type of lawsuit other than the type presented.

If you have any questions about these issues, please contact your labor and employment counsel at Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP.

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