U.S. Supreme Court Expands “Ministerial Exception” for Religious Employers

Jul 24, 2020

by Adam Henningsen

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued an important decision concerning the “ministerial exception” to federal employment discrimination laws.

The ministerial exception is a legal doctrine that protects religious entities from being sued for alleged discrimination.  Courts generally refrain from adjudicating matters involving employment decisions regarding employees who perform certain functions for churches and other religious institutions. This “ministerial exception” comes from the First Amendment principle that governmental regulation of church administration, including the appointment of ministers, impedes the free exercise of religion and constitutes inappropriate government entanglement with church authority. The exception is limited, however, in that it only applies to claims brought by “ministers,” which are employees who perform essentially religious functions.

The Supreme Court examined the scope of the ministerial exception in two consolidated cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel. The cases centered around claims brought by teachers at two Los Angeles area Catholic schools.  One of the teachers alleged she had been fired after requesting medical leave for breast cancer treatment. If true, such a firing would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The second teacher alleged that she was terminated on account of her age, allegedly in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”).

In a 7-to-2 decision, the Court held that the two teachers who wanted to contest their firings were the kinds of employees who were covered by the ministerial exception, and were thus unable to sue.

Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority decision, stated, “[t]he religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission.” Thus, those involved in almost any kind of religious instruction would be considered “ministers” of the faith, no matter their official title or even if they practiced the faith themselves.

The Court had previously examined this issue in 2012, when it held that the First Amendment barred a court from hearing an employment discrimination claim by a teacher whose job title was “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012). In the current case, the Court noted that Hosanna-Tabor did not establish a “rigid formula” for applying the ministerial exception.  Instead, the Court reasoned that “implicit in its Hosanna-Tabor decision was a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith” are part of the core responsibilities of private religious schools. Applying these principles, the Court concluded that both plaintiffs had vital religious duties in educating their students in the Catholic faith.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion, in which Justice Neil Gorsuch joined, arguing that courts should “defer to religious organizations’ good-faith claims that a certain employee’s position is “˜ministerial.'”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined, arguing that the Court incorrectly classified the teachers as “ministers,” given that the teachers taught primarily secular subjects, lacked substantial religious titles and training, and were not even required to be Catholic.

The decision could potentially have far-reaching implications for religious institutions and schools faced with discrimination claims from various types of workers such as counselors, nurses, coaches, and office workers.  Going forward, courts likely will be much more inclined to find that employees working for religious educational organizations are not subject to federal anti-discrimination statutes.

The full impact of the Court’s decision remains to be seen.  Certain employees may still be protected by state employment discrimination laws, including the Missouri Human Rights Act.

If you have any questions regarding the impact of the Court’s decision, please contact the employment attorneys at Tueth Keeney.

Labor and Employment – Tueth, Keeney, Cooper, Mohan & Jackstadt, P.C. has successfully represented a number of businesses, large and small, throughout the Midwest in labor and employment matters. Our broad range of experience includes employment discrimination litigation, wage-hour investigations, affirmative action revision plans development, INS audits, and a variety of traditional labor matters.

Adam Henningsen practices primarily in the areas of education law, labor and employment law, and civil litigation. Adam regularly works with school districts and individual administrators on matters including labor and employment, contracting, student discipline, special education, and state and federal regulation compliance. He has successfully represented school districts, charter schools, and other employers in State and Federal Court, as well as administrative agencies including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, the Missouri Administrative Hearing Commission, and the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Prior to joining the firm, Adam practiced school law at a firm in Kansas City, Missouri.