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Supreme Court’s Recognition of a “Ministerial Exception” in First Amendment May Have Wide-Reaching Implications

The following is a guest blog post by Alan D. Weinfeld of Parker, Milliken, Clark, O’Hara & Samuelian in Los Angeles.

The United States Supreme Court recently recognized the existence of a “ministerial exception” in the First Amendment, which precludes lawsuits by ministers against their religious institutions for violations of employment discrimination laws. This decision could have wide-reaching impact not just on churches, temples and mosques, but on all types of religious-based organizations.

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v EEOC, a church and school (Hosanna-Tabor) employed the plaintiff as a “called” teacher and a commissioned minister. In addition to teaching secular subjects, the plaintiff taught a religion class, led her students in daily prayer and devotional exercises, and took her students to a weekly school-wide chapel service, which she led twice a year.

After the plaintiff developed narcolepsy and took disability leave, Hosanna-Tabor hired a lay teacher to fill her position and offered to pay a portion of her health insurance if she resigned. The plaintiff refused and, after being informed that she likely would be fired, responded that she had spoken with an attorney and intended to assert her legal rights. Hosanna-Tabor then fired her for “insubordination and disruptive behavior,” as well as the damage she caused to her “working relationship” with the school by “threatening to take legal action.”

The United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Hosanna-Tabor, recognizing for the first time a “ministerial exception” in the First Amendment, based on the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses. This exception precludes the application of employment discrimination laws to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.

The Supreme Court indicated that the ministerial exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation, but did not adopt a rigid formula for when an employee qualifies as a minister. Rather, the Court merely concluded that the exception covered the plaintiff, given that she was held out as a minister, her title represented a significant degree of religious training, she had accepted the formal call to religious service,  and her job duties reflected a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.

The Supreme Court’s decision has implications well beyond the employment relationship between a church and its minister. Because the Supreme Court stated that the ministerial exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation, the exception could potentially be applied to religious leadership and faculty at private schools, universities, hospitals, charitable foundations and other organizations with a religious affiliation.

The ministerial exception can be applicable even if a leader has significant non-religious duties. The Supreme Court noted that “[t]he heads of congregations . . . often have a mix of duties, including secular ones such as helping manage the congregation’s finances, supervising purely secular personnel, and overseeing the upkeep of facilities.”

Although the Supreme Court expressed no view on whether the ministerial exception applies to claims other than employment discrimination, its reasoning arguably could be extended to claims for breach of contract and wrongful termination in violation of public policy, and possibly even to wage and hour claims that are connected to a termination.

Based on the Supreme Court’s decision, religious organizations may choose to assign spiritual or religious duties to their management employees, to allow the organizations to assert the ministerial exception in defense against employment-related lawsuits by such employees.

It will be up to lower courts to grapple with how far down the totem pole the ministerial exception extends.

CEB has you covered on all employment issues with its books Advising California Employers and Employees,
Wrongful Employment Termination Practice, and California Wage and Hour Law and Litigation. Also check out CEB’s latest Employment Law Practice: 21st Annual Recent Developments, available On Demand.

© The Regents of the University of California, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

3 Responses

  1. I think that the court has made a well reasoned decision as indicated by the unanimous decision. Religious liberty must be protected against secular intrusion.

  2. If religious institutions are cloaked with legal immunity, and the exemption is not shared by secular counter-parts, it constitutes governmental favoritism of religion and is a violation of the Establishment Clause. I would caution against an overly broad construction of this case.

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