Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimouslyy held that the ministerial exception bars a federal employment discrimination suit brought by a teacher challenging her church-employer’s decision to terminate her employment.  While this holding is limited to religious affiliated employers, it firmly establishes the ministerial exception as a bar to certain employment discrimination claims against religious organizations.

Plaintiff Cheryl Perich was a teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School –a school affiliated with the Lutheran Church.  The school had two kinds of teachers –lay and called teachers.  Called teachers were regarding as having been drawn to their vocation by God and had to complete certain religious academic requirements and become "Commissioned" in the Lutheran faith.  Lay teachers were not required to undergo the religious training or ordination requirements.  Moreover, lay teachers were only used when called teachers were unavailable.  Perich stated out as a lay teacher but was asked to, and agreed to become a called teacher.

Perich subsequently developed narcolepsy during the 2004-05 school year and took disability leave.  The school contracted with a substitute teacher to complete the academic year.  When Perich wanted to return to work, the school declined because it had replaced her position with the substitute.  Perich was offered  a paid continuation of her health insurance in return for her resignation. She refused the offer and instead reported to work.  When asked to leave, she refused to leave until she was provided a note confirming she had reported to work. She was later told by the principal that she would likely be fired to which she responded that she had spoken to an attorney and intended to assert her legal rights.  The school terminated her employment for insubordination and disruptive behavior as well as the damaged she allegedly caused to her relationship with the school by threatening to take legal action.

Perich filed a charge of disability discrimination and the EEOC issued a cause finding and filed suit on her behalf against the school claiming that she was fired in retaliation for threatening to file an ADA lawsuit.  The church and school defended against the disability claim arguing that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause’s (i.e., the provision that precludes the government from passing any law establishing a religion or interfering with the free exercise of religion) ministerial exception prohibited the application of the ADA claim against it because it would undermine the church’s decision in who become and remains a minister of the church.  The EEOC argued that the Court should not recognize a ministerial exception.  The Court rejected the Commission’s arguments holding that to do so would effectively allow the government decide for the church who could act on its behalf as a minister.

Significant aspects of the case included that the teacher was ordained by the church as a minister.   While most of the duties she performed were similar to non-ordained teachers, she also taught religion class, led students in daily prayer and devotional exercises, took her students to a weekly school-wide chapel service and led the chapel service twice a year.  Both the church/school and the teacher held the teacher out as a minister with a role distinct from most of its members; her role required a significant degree of religious training and a formal process of commissioning and that her job duties reflected a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission.  Because she qualified as a minister, the Court concluded that the EEOC’s action challenging the decision to terminate her employment would be tantamount to dictating to the church who could and could not be a minister on the church’s behalf.  As such, the ADA claim was barred by the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and ministerial exception. 

The quick takeaways from the case are:

  • Ministerial exception exists;
  • It only applies to religious groups and organizations (although what qualifies as a religious group or organization is unclear);
  • The ministerial exception does not only protect religious organizations from suits alleging religious discrimination;
  • Ministerial exception applies to internal decisions of the religious organization in deciding who to select or retain as a minister;
  • Ministerial exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation but it is unclear how far the exception can be extended;
  • Holding is limited to cases where minister brings an employment discrimination claim challenging a church’s decision to fire her.

It will be left to the lower court’s to flesh out the outer boundaries of the ministerial exception to determine who qualifies as a minister and what decisions can be said to interfere with the religious body’s free exercise of religion.

You can download a full copy of the Court’s opinion here.

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