In its 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a “ministerial” exemption to federal civil rights laws. It allows religious employers – without being subjected to claims of discrimination – to make employment decisions with regard to employees with ministerial duties. Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals restricted the reach of the exemption, refusing to apply it to a Catholic school teacher with limited religious instruction duties.
In Biel v. St. James School, the plaintiff was a fifth-grade teacher who claimed she was terminated in violation of the ADA following a leave of absence for breast cancer treatment. The school sought dismissal of the suit based on the applicability of the ministerial exemption. In a 2-1 decision, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the plaintiff’s job did not fall within that exemption due to her very limited role in religious instruction. Although she incorporated religious themes into her lessons, this role did not meet Hosanna-Tabor’s definition of ministerial work.
The dissenting judge said that Catholic school teachers are by definition responsible for religious stewardship in their classes. As such, subjecting the school to court review of its employment decisions violates First Amendment requirements. This decision should caution religious schools and other employers against assuming that all instructors will automatically fall within the ministerial exemption. Before relying on the exemption to avoid employment claims, the employer should carefully review and document its conclusion as to the employee’s role in religious instruction or other ministerial matters.