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First Amendment: The Ministerial Exception Revisited

Written by Adel Nucho on May 14, 2020 Category: Civil Litigation, First Amendment, General Counsel and Advice, Religious Institutions

In 2004, a Called1 teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church School, located in Redford, Michigan, went on disability leave after being diagnosed with narcolepsy.

After feeling better, she wanted to teach again. But the Church no longer had a position for her. The Church asked her to resign; she refused and threatened to take legal action. She was fired.

After filing a charge with the EEOC,2 the EEOC sued the Church under the ADA,3 claiming that the Church unlawfully retaliated against her for threatening to take legal action.

In its defense, the Church invoked the “ministerial exception.” Enforcing the ADA against it, the Church asserted, would allow the government to intrude into the employment relationship between a religious group and one of its ministers. And such intrusion, the Church argued, is barred by the First Amendment.

      The Supreme Court Unanimously Rules for the Church in 2012

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court agreed with the Church, holding that the “ministerial exception” bars an “employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her.”4

Announcing the unanimous opinion of the Court, Chief Justice Roberts said, “By imposing an unwanted minister through an employment discrimination suit, the State infringes the Free Exercise Clause which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”5

In its own words, however, the Court in Hosanna-Tabor was reluctant “to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.”

Whether an employee qualifies as a “minister” remains an open question.

      The Ministerial Exception Revisited in 2020

On May 11, 2020, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru,6 an appeal from the Ninth Circuit’s decision in two cases.7

The cases involved two teachers in California who sued the Catholic schools where they worked, one claiming age discrimination and the other disability discrimination.

The Ninth Circuit in both cases distinguished Hosanna-Tabor by finding that, based on all the circumstances, the teachers were not “ministers.”

In their brief to the Supreme Court, the schools argued that, “When an employee of a religious organization performs important religious functions, that is enough under Hosanna-Tabor for the ministerial exception to apply.”8

      What’s Next?

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC will follow this case closely, and the implication it will have in the future on employment decisions taken by religious organizations. For the time being, feel free to give us a call if you have any questions.

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1 To become a “Called” teacher, and hold the formal title “Minister of Religion, Commissioned,” the candidate had to complete certain academic requirements, including a course of theological study.

2 The “EEOC” stands for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of, among other things, a person’s disability. It is also illegal to retaliate against a person for complaining about discrimination.

3 The “ADA” stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law that makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against a qualified applicant or employee with a disability.

4 Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171 (2012).

5 Opinion Announcement.

6 Oral Argument on May 11, 2020.

7 Biel v. St. James Sch., 911 F.3d 603 (9th Cir. 2018) and Morrissey-Berru v. Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch., 769 F. App’x 460 (9th Cir. 2019).

8 Brief for Petitioners.

 

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