A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has reinforced the protections afforded to religious organizations against employment discrimination lawsuits. In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, (pdf) the Court unanimously held that the so-called “ministerial exception” included in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other employment law statutes prevents a former religious school teacher who taught a full secular curriculum as well as a daily course on religion and regularly led students in prayer and worship – from bringing ADA claims against her employer, as she qualified as a ministerial employee even if the majority of her duties involved secular instruction.
Title I of the ADA incorporates the ministerial exception, which allows religious entities to give "preference in employment to individuals of a particular religion" and to "require that all applicants and employees conform to the religious tenants of such organization." The ministerial exception is rooted in the First Amendment's guarantees of religious freedom.
In the case at hand, the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School hired both "lay" or "contract" teachers, as well as "called" teachers who are hired by the voting members of the church’s congregation after they complete instruction in certain religious studies courses. Once selected by the congregation, called teachers receive the title of “commissioned minister.” As such, called teachers are permitted to apply for a housing allowance on their income taxes provided that they are conducting activities "in the exercise of the ministry."
The plaintiff in this matter, Cheryl Perich, started off as a lay teacher but was then hired as a called teacher after completing the requirements. Although Perich’s duties remained largely the same, she did teach one additional religious course per day, and occasionally led her students in prayer sessions. Perich’s dispute with Hosanna-Tabor arose when she attempted to return to work following months of medical leave due to narcolepsy. When the school informed her that her position had been filled for the year and questioned her fitness for duty, Perich threatened legal action. The school then terminated her employment.
Consequently, Perich filed a charge of discrimination and retaliation with the EEOC alleging that Hosanna-Tabor had discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of her rights under the ADA. The district court held that the ministerial exception to the ADA barred her lawsuit. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, finding that since Perich’s duties were primarily secular, she was not a “ministerial” employee subject to the exception. According to the 6th Circuit, courts that have addressed this issue have determined that teachers classified as ministerial employees for purposes of the exception “have generally taught primarily religious subjects or had a central role in the spiritual or pastoral mission of the church.”
The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision, finding that Perich constituted a minister for purposes of the exception, and therefore the ADA charge had to be dismissed. The 6th Circuit erred by, among other things, placing too much emphasis on the teacher’s performance of secular duties, and placing too little emphasis on the fact that she was a commissioned minister.
In finding that the exception applied in this matter, the Court emphasized that it was not adopting “a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister. It is enough for us to conclude, in this our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers Perich, given all the circumstances of her employment.” Specifically, the Court relied on the fact that she held herself out as a minister as well as claimed the special housing allowance on her taxes available only to employees who earned their compensation “in the exercise of the ministry.”
The Court rejected the EEOC’s and Perich’s argument that the reason for Perich’s termination – her threat to bring legal action which violated the church’s belief that disputes should be resolved internally – was pretext for unlawful discrimination. According to the Court, “[t]hat suggestion misses the point of the ministerial exception. The purpose of the exception is not to safeguard a church’s decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason. The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful . . . is the church’s alone.” Citing its decision in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for United States and Canada v. Milivojevich, the Supreme Court explained that the First Amendment “permit[s] hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government, and to create tribunals for adjudicating disputes over these matters.”
The Court also emphasized that the decision was a narrow one:
The case before us is an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her. Today we hold only that the ministerial exception bars such a suit. We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers. There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.
Notably, the Court distinguished the circumstances in this case to its 1990 decision in Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, in which the Court sanctioned the denial of state unemployment benefits to members of the Native American Church when it was discovered that they had been fired for illegally ingesting peyote. The Court in that case held that this denial did not violate the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause, even though the peyote had been ingested for sacramental purposes, because the “right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).” Although both the ADA’s prohibition of employment discrimination and retaliation and the state’s prohibition on peyote use are valid and neutral laws of general applicability, the Court differentiated between a church’s selection of its ministers and an individual’s ingestion of peyote. The Court explained that the facts in Smith “involved government regulation of only outward physical acts.” The case at hand, however, “concerns government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.”