On January 11, 2012, we reported about a significant First Amendment religious freedom decision involving the “ministerial exception” which was decided that day by the Supreme Court, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Court had before it a teacher in a religious institution who taught both secular subjects and a class in religion. When she threatened to file a charge of disability when a new teacher was hired to replace her, she was fired for insubordination.  Her case involved a head-to-head confrontation between First Amendment religious freedom and the anti-discrimination employment laws. 

At issue before the Court was the definition of “minister,” because” the “ministerial exception” holds, in effect, that the government should not get involved in internal church affairs involving “ministers,” and therefore courts should not become embroiled in lawsuits involving “ministers.” The unanimous Court held that the religious institution must be free to choose its own ministers without state involvement: “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” but “so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.”

We credit ace reporter Judy Greenwald of Business Insurance for bringing to our attention one of the first post-Hosanna-Tabor decisions. A federal court in Illinois has decided a case with facts similar to Hosanna-Tabor and, following the Supreme Court, has stated that “[t]he ministerial exception, grounded in the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment, precludes claims of employment discrimination against a religious institution brought by its ministers. … [the Supreme Court] upheld the right of religious institutions ‘to select and control who will minister to the faithful. …’”

As in Hosanna-Tabor, the Court had to decide whether the plaintiff was a “minister,” but noted that the Supreme Court “declined to “adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.” The Court concluded that there were “marked similarities between these two cases [which] establish that the ministerial exception is applicable to [plaintiff’s] claims as a matter of law.”