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The Supreme Court Recognizes the Ministerial Exception to Employment Discrimination Claims

April 2012

By: Ryan L. Young, Esq.

On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al. The issue before the Court was whether the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment barred a minister employee from suing her religious institution employer for employment discrimination. With a unanimous decision, the Court held that an exception derived from the First Amendment (the "ministerial exception") did bar a minister employee from suing her religious employer for employment discrimination.

Facts

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School (Hosanna-Tabor) operates a small K-8 school in Redford, Michigan. Hosanna-Tabor has two types of teachers: "lay" and "called." Called teachers have to satisfy academic requirements that include theological study, an endorsement from their church's district, and an oral examination. Upon completion of the requirements, the teacher receives the formal title "Minister of Religion, Commissioned." By contrast, lay teachers are not required to complete these academic requirements, nor are they required to be Lutheran. They teach only secular subjects and receive one-year renewable contracts.

Hosanna-Tabor employed Cheryl Perich (Perich) in 1999 as a lay teacher. A year later, Perich completed the academic requirements to become a called teacher and Hosanna-Tabor subsequently designated her as a commissioned minister. Perich primarily taught a variety of secular subjects with the exception of a 45-minute religion class she taught four days a week. She also led students in prayer and devotional exercises each day and attended a weekly school-wide chapel service (which she led herself twice a year).

In June 2004, Perich became ill with what was later diagnosed as narcolepsy. She started the 2004-2005 school year on disability leave. On January 27, 2005 Perich notified the school principal that she would be able to report to work in February. The principal responded that the school had already contracted with a lay teacher to fill Perich's position for the rest of the school year. When the school approached Perich about resigning from her position, Perich refused to resign and stated that she intended to assert her legal rights. Hosanna-Tabor then terminated Perich's employment.

Lower Court's Decision for Hosanna-Tabor Appealed and Reversed by Appellate Court

Perich filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that Hosanna-Tabor terminated her employment in violation with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); specifically, firing Perich in retaliation for threatening to file an ADA lawsuit. The EEOC brought suit against Hosanna-Tabor in District Court. Hosanna-Tabor argued that the suit was barred by the "ministerial exception," an exception derived from the First Amendment's prohibition of Congress to interfere with any establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The District Court agreed that the ministerial exception applied and Hosanna-Tabor won. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's decision, finding that Perich was not a minister. The Sixth Circuit relied heavily on the fact that Perich's job consisted primarily of teaching secular subjects. Hosanna-Tabor then appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Recognizes and Applies the Ministerial Exception

On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit's decision and found that Perich constituted a minister covered by the ministerial exception. Citing the First Amendment's establishment and free exercise clauses, and the Court of Appeals uniform recognition of the concept, the Supreme Court acknowledged the existence of the "ministerial exception," which bars a minister employee from suing his or her religious institution employer for employment discrimination. The Supreme Court reasoned, "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."

While clarifying that the ministerial exception was not limited to the head of a religious congregation, the Court refused to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister; opting instead, on a case-by-case determination. In the case at hand, the Court looked at Perich's formal title of commissioned minister, her use of the formal title, and the important religious functions she performed for the Church. Based on these facts, the Court reversed the Sixth Circuit's decision and concluded that Perich was a minister covered by the ministerial exception thereby barring her employment discrimination suit against Hosanna-Tabor.

The Court declined to address whether the ministerial exception barred other types of employment-related lawsuits; specifically, breach of contract or tort claims.

Advice for Employers

The Supreme Court's decision is a key victory for religious institution employers because it recognizes the ministerial exception and prevents minister employees from bringing employment discrimination suits. The operative fact will be whether the employee is a minister.

While the Court's decision does not create a rigid framework for identifying which employees can be considered ministers, a religious institution employer can look at some of the factors the Court relied on in its determination for guidance; specifically, the employee's formal title, the training required for employee to obtain that title (e.g. religious academic study), employee's use of the title (e.g. obtaining benefits only available to ministers), and the employee's job duties (e.g. duties reflect a role in conveying the Church's message and carrying out its message). Before relying on the ministerial exception, religious institution employers should take the time to examine the employee to determine whether they are properly considered a minister.