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U.S. Supreme Court Issues Two Rulings Broadening Exceptions for Religious Employers

    Client Alerts
  • July 09, 2020

In its 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court recognized that religious organizations have the ability to select, discipline, and discharge employees who perform ministerial duties – without being subjected to claims of employment discrimination. Since that decision, lower federal courts have struggled with the question of which employees actually perform ministerial duties as opposed to secular ones. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court refined its definition of the “ministerial exception” to include Catholic school teachers whose duties incorporated lessons involving Catholic doctrine.

Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, involved two cases consolidated for appeal, both filed by teachers who sued their school employers alleging discrimination. The trial courts dismissed the claims under the ministerial exception, but the Ninth Circuit reversed these decisions, holding that the two teachers were not ministers. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court reinstated the dismissals, finding that courts cannot make judgment calls with regard to whether jobs have religious significance. In these cases, the plaintiffs were required to incorporate Catholic doctrine into their teaching, and the employer has the First Amendment right to select teachers it views as adhering to these requirements.

The ministerial exception still would not extend to employees with purely secular duties, but this decision gives religious organizations additional protections against claims from certain employees. For churches, schools, and other religiously affiliated employers, employees entrusted with carrying out the organization’s missions and goals likely fall within the expanded ministerial exception.

In a separate decision on Wednesday in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court upheld Trump administration regulations that allow any employer with religious or moral objections to opt out of Affordable Care Act requirements that their group medical plans provide contraceptive coverage without cost. In another 7-2 decision, the court relied on its earlier Hobby Lobby ruling to conclude that the First Amendment and federal law support the exception from the contraceptive mandate.

These decisions continue a series of Supreme Court opinions that have expanded employer exceptions from federal legal requirements based on religious beliefs or practices. In its recent decision finding that Title VII includes protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the court left open the question of whether this also applies in situations where the employer makes such decisions based on religious or moral beliefs.