On October 5, 2011, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (10-553). In Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court will decide whether the ministerial exception in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and rooted in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, applies to teachers at a religious elementary school.
In 2004, Cheryl Perich missed several months of teaching at Hosanna-Tabor due to a medical condition and was asked to resign. When she refused and threatened to sue under the ADA, she was fired, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Hosanna-Tabor for retaliation. Hosanna-Tabor argued that Ms. Perich fell under the ministerial exception to the ADA because her duties required her to impart religious doctrines and values. The EEOC argued that blanket application of the ministerial exception would give sectarian schools carte blanche to violate the ADA and other employment discrimination laws.
The trial court agreed with Hosanna-Tabor, but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed, finding that Ms. Perich did not fall under the ministerial exception, because she was principally a teacher of secular subjects and her primary duties were not ministerial. The Supreme Court must now decide where to draw the line. A broad interpretation of the ministerial exception could immunize religious institutions from significant employment laws (such as those prohibiting race discrimination and sexual harassment), while a narrow construction could expose religious institutions to lawsuits challenging their religious doctrines (such as the Catholic Church’s requirement of an all-male priesthood).
A decision in this case is expected from the United States Supreme Court in the summer of 2012. For religious institutions, the decision is likely to have profound impact on their relationship with the State. For all employers, this case is a reminder that statutory exceptions are not always as broad as they might appear and that one should tread cautiously when making employment decisions on bases that might appear discriminatory or retaliatory.