March 14, 2012

Supreme Court Recognizes Ministerial Exception

In our last e-newsletter, we indicated that the Supreme Court would consider Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, a case involving the existence and extent of the "ministerial exception." On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court decided Hosanna-Tabor, holding that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution create a "ministerial exception" that bars suits by ministers against their religious employers alleging violation of employment discrimination laws. Although the Court declined to provide a test that may be used to determine when an individual qualifies as a "minister" for purposes of the exception, it indicated that the exception applies beyond the head of a religious congregation.

By way of refresher, a teacher was "called" by the congregation to serve at Hosanna-Tabor's Lutheran school with the title, "Minister, of Religion, Commissioned." After the teacher became ill and missed several months of work, the school hired a replacement and refused to allow the teacher to return when she indicated that she was ready. The teacher was fired following threats to sue. The teacher filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), alleging that she had been terminated in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Holding that the "Religion Clauses bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers," the unanimous Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit decision which held that the ministerial exception did not apply to the teacher. The Court stated that "[r]equiring 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."

Having determined that a ministerial exception exists, the Court concluded that it applied to Hosanna-Tabor's decision to fire the teacher. In this regard, it identified the following factors that are significant in recognizing her status as "minister": (i) her title; (ii) the religious and educational training required for the job; (iii) the tax benefits that she enjoyed; (iv) that her teaching load included a religion class; and (v) that she led her students in daily prayers and devotions.

Although the Court did not provide a "rigid formula" that may be used by religious organizations in evaluating whether employees fall under the ministerial exception, the factors identified above will be helpful to such organizations in identifying the characteristics of those to whom the exception applies.

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