In a decision sure to impact religious organizations in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on September 19 that religious school teachers may not assert claims of discrimination before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination or in the courts of the Commonwealth.
Temple Emanuel of Newton v. Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination involved a dispute between a temple and a part-time religious school teacher passed over when the synagogue reduced its teaching staff. The Supreme Judicial Court, after transferring the case to itself from the state Appeals Court, reviewed a number of previous rulings invoking the "ministerial exception", which derives from the United States Constitution's prohibition against laws "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . ." In several prior cases, the ministerial exception had been applied to prohibit judicial review of employment actions involving ministers, priests, rabbis and other religious leaders. However, in this instance, the Supreme Judicial Court took the ministerial exception to another level: it applied it to a part-time religious school teacher, finding that to permit her to pursue her allegations of harassment and discrimination based upon age "would infringe the free exercise of religion or cause excessive entanglement between the State and a religious group . . ."
As a result of this opinion, religious organizations in Massachusetts now have wide-ranging flexibility to deal with religious school teachers without worrying that a discrimination case might ensue.