January 11, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC

On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court decided Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, No. 10-553, holding that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution create a "ministerial exception" that protects a religious organization's choice to hire or fire a minister from anti-discrimination laws. The exception, moreover, applies to more people than just the head of a congregation, and in fact applied to a teacher in a religious school, although the Court declined to set a bright-line test for determining how far it extends.

Respondent Cheryl Perich was "called" by her congregation to be a teacher at Hosanna-Tabor's Lutheran school for kindergarten through eighth grade. Because she was called, as opposed to being a lay teacher, she was given the formal title "Minister of Religion, Commissioned." After teaching for several years, Perich fell ill with narcolepsy and missed several months of work. The school hired a teacher to replace her, then refused to allow her to return when she said she was able. She protested and threatened to sue, upon which the congregation revoked her call and the school fired her. Perich filed a charge with the EEOC, alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101. The EEOC took the case and sued Hosanna-Tabor.

The district court dismissed the claim under the "ministerial exception," but the Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the exception did not apply to Perich because she was not a true minister as her job consisted largely of the same duties performed by lay teachers

The Supreme Court granted review and unanimously reversed, holding that "[b]oth Religion Clauses bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers." Imposing an unwanted minister on a church violates the Free Exercise Clause, which "protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments." It also violates the Establishment Clause, which "prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions."

The Court rejected the EEOC's argument that religious organizations enjoy no more and no less than the same right to freedom of association that secular groups have, writing, "[w]e cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization's freedom to select its own ministers."

Having determined that a ministerial exception exists, the Court concluded that it applied to Hosanna-Tabor's decision to fire Perich. The exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation, the Court held. Beyond that, the Court declined to formulate a rule and concluded simply that on the facts before it—including Perich's title as minister, the required religious training for that position, her claiming a tax allowance for ministry, her teaching of a religious class, and her leading the students in prayer—Perich was a minister covered by the ministerial exception.

The Chief Justice delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion. Justice Alito filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Kagan joined.

Download Opinion of the Court

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