In its 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision, the U.S. Supreme Court first recognized the existence of a “ministerial exception” to the requirements of federal civil rights laws such as Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act. In this case, the court approved of a long-standing judicial reluctance to hold religious organizations liable for employment decisions that relate to their ministerial staff, meaning those persons who serve the organization’s religious purpose.
While this exception clearly covers clergy and employees who provide direct religious instruction, in two recent cases, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to apply the ministerial exception to Catholic school teachers. In both cases, the appellate court revived the plaintiffs’ ADA claims on the basis that they were hired to teach secular subjects, not to provide religious instruction. The schools asserted that all teachers are expected to provide teaching consistent with the Catholic Church’s religious approach.
By accepting these cases for review, the Supreme Court may be signaling its displeasure with the Ninth Circuit’s restrictive interpretation of Hosanna-Tabor. Oral arguments in the consolidated appeals are scheduled for this spring.