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Religious School Does Not Have to Restrict Hiring By Faith to Claim Ministerial Exemption

    Client Alerts
  • March 01, 2018

In its 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a “ministerial exemption” to employment claims brought under Title VII and the ADA. The exception allows religious employers to make what otherwise would be considered discriminatory employment decisions with regard to employees who perform religious functions. Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a contention that the ministerial exemption is forfeited if the employer fails to exclude members of other faiths from these positions.

In Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School, Inc., a grade school teacher sued under the ADA after being dismissed. She claimed that the termination was based on conditions relating to a brain tumor. The district court dismissed the claim on the basis of the ministerial exemption, and the plaintiff appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

Among other arguments, the plaintiff contended that the school had waived its claim to the ministerial exemption because of its nondiscrimination policy, stating that employment was not restricted on the basis of faith. The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal, rejecting this and the plaintiff’s other contentions. The court noted that religious employers cannot be punished for adopting nondiscrimination policies. The policy does not affect the sincerity of the institution’s religious beliefs.

Because the plaintiff’s job duties included religious instruction, the employer was entitled to use of the ministerial exemption. This case shows that applicability of the exemption will depend on the employee’s job functions and not on his or her personal beliefs.