The SJC recently affirmed dismissal of the age discrimination claim of a religious school teacher under Chapter 151B, holding that school's actions fell within the "ministerial exception" to federal and state discrimination law.
Temple Emanuel of Newton v. Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination centered on the termination of a religious school teacher by a Conservative Jewish congregation (Temple). The teacher filed a charge with the MCAD asserting age discrimination in violation of Chapter 151B. Temple moved to dismiss the teacher's claim, asserting that its actions were exempt from Chapter 151B under the ministerial exception. The ministerial exception arises from the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The exception is based on the concept that freedom of religion is infringed where state or federal government interferes in decisions by religious institutions as to "which individuals will minister to the faithful."
After an MCAD investigator denied Temple's motion to dismiss, Temple appealed to the superior court. The superior court entered judgment in favor of Temple and dismissed the teacher's MCAD Charge before the MCAD rendered a final decision on the Charge. The MCAD appealed this decision to the SJC.
The SJC first held that the superior court erred by taking jurisdiction over the case prior to the time that the MCAD's administrative proceedings had concluded. Temple's ministerial exception defense had not yet been addressed by the full commission, and the SJC noted that "there could be no assurance as to how the commission would ultimately rule on this issue." The SJC also held that while the case raised important legal questions, the questions were not so far reaching as to compel the superior court to take the case prior to exhaustion of Temple's administrative remedies. Finally, relying on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the SJC held that the superior court erred in reasoning that mere investigation by the MCAD violated the First Amendment if the ministerial exception applied.
Although the SJC found the superior court's decision to be premature, it nonetheless affirmed the dismissal based on the undisputed facts presented on appeal. The Court held that on the facts presented, the school teacher was a "minister" and thus the ministerial exception applied to the case. The Court reasoned that the school teacher "taught religious subjects at a school that functioned solely as a religious school, whose mission was to teach Jewish children about Jewish learning, language, history, traditions and prayer." The Court thus concluded that "the State should not intrude on a religious group's decision as to who should (and should not) teach its religion to the children of its members."
The case clarifies the limited circumstances under which judicial review of MCAD administrative proceedings may be obtained, particularly prior to the conclusion of the MCAD's administrative process. The case also clarifies the circumstances under which the ministerial exception applies to employment decisions relating to religious school instructors.