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Supreme Court Recognizes Ministerial Exception to Employment Discrimination and Retaliation Laws

    Client Alerts
  • January 20, 2012

Last Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed a lower court decision that found a parochial school liable for retaliatory termination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In doing so, the Court confirmed the "ministerial exception" to federal civil rights laws, that gives religious organizations the right to make employment decisions regarding certain personnel without fear of being subjected to discrimination or retaliation claims.

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, the plaintiff was an elementary teacher at the church school. She had completed a study program that resulted in the church designating her as a "Minister of Religion." The plaintiff's teaching duties included leading students in prayer, teaching religious instruction and occasionally leading chapel services.

The plaintiff was diagnosed with narcolepsy and took a long leave of absence. Upon her recovery, the church informed her that her job was no longer available, but she demanded reinstatement, threatening legal action in the alternative. The church responded to this communication by terminating the plaintiff. The EEOC sued on her behalf, claiming that the church had terminated the plaintiff in retaliation for her asserting claims under the ADA. The church contended that the First Amendment precludes application of the ADA to this employment decision.

The Supreme Court agreed, reversing a Sixth Circuit opinion finding that the plaintiff did not fall within the scope of the ministerial exemption. In addition to recognizing the exemption, the Court concluded that it applied to the plaintiff in this case. Religious organizations are not bound by employment discrimination laws that could have the effect of interfering with their faith and mission by affecting selection of ministers. The Court rejected the EEOC's position that no blanket exemption applies and that the First Amendment overrides discrimination laws only in circumstances where the application of the law actually interferes with such selection discretion.

The Supreme Court declined to set any specific rules for who is considered a ministerial employee within the exception. In this case, the appointment of the plaintiff as a minister following a course of study, and her religious teaching duties met this test. Lower courts will continue to decide whether to apply the exemption in cases where the religious organization employs persons with largely secular duties not directly related to its religious mission.