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Supreme Court Recognizes Exception to Discrimination Laws for Religious Employers

Publisher: Day Pitney Alert
January 12, 2012
Day Pitney Author(s) John P. McLafferty Kevin J. Skelly

On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court decided Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, one of the most highly anticipated religious rights cases to reach the Supreme Court in decades. In its opinion, the Court recognized for the first time the "ministerial exception" and held that the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment prevented a former "called" teacher in a Lutheran school from suing her employer for employment discrimination.

Cheryl Perich worked as an elementary school teacher at a school run by the Lutheran church. Eventually, Perich became a called teacher after completing certain religious studies and being elected a "commissioned minister" by the church congregation. In contrast to called teachers, the school also employed "lay" teachers who were not required to undergo the same extensive religious training. Teachers at the school performed generally the same duties regardless of whether they were called or lay teachers, but the school hired lay teachers only when called teachers were unavailable. In addition to teaching secular subjects, Perich spent about 45 minutes per day leading students in prayer, attending chapel service and teaching religious classes.

Perich became ill in 2004, requiring her to take a disability leave of absence for the first few months of the 2004-2005 school year. When she sought to return to work in January 2005, the school expressed concern about her ability to teach, given her physical limitations. The Hosanna-Tabor congregation voted to offer her a "peaceful release" from her calling if she agreed to resign from her teaching position. Perich refused to resign. Rather, she threatened to speak to an attorney to assert her legal rights. The school then terminated her employment for "insubordination and disruptive behavior" because, according to the congregation, she violated church doctrine by failing to address her grievances through internal church procedure.

On Perich's behalf, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") filed a lawsuit alleging that the school discriminated and retaliated against Perich in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the school, holding that Perich's claims were barred by the ministerial exception, a doctrine adopted by all of the federal appeals courts that prevents ministers of a faith from pursuing employment discrimination claims against their religious employers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, finding that the ministerial exception did not apply to Perich because her "primary duties" were secular.

In a unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit, recognized the validity of the ministerial exception and held that it applied to Perich. The Court explained that the First Amendment prohibitions against excessive governmental entanglement in religious organizations prevent civil courts from getting involved in employment decisions relating to the selection of the institution's ministers. As the Court explained, "[s]uch action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs." While acknowledging the important societal interest in preventing employment discrimination, Chief Justice Roberts held that the First Amendment "struck the balance" in favor of protecting a religious group's rights to choose those individuals who will preach its beliefs and teach its faith.

The Court refused, however, to establish a bright-line test for deciding who qualifies as a minister, holding only that Perich's role as a commissioned minister and the nature of the functions she performed for the school were sufficient, in this case, to make her a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception. Of note, the Court rejected the Sixth Circuit's emphasis on the fact that Perich's religious duties consumed only 45 minutes of her day. Noting that the issue of whether one is a minister "is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch," the Court held that time spent on particular activities cannot be considered in isolation.

In concurring opinions, Justices Thomas and Alito offered their views on how to define a "minister." Justice Thomas stated that he would "defer to a religious organization's good-faith understanding of who qualifies as a minister." Justice Alito's concurrence, with which Justice Kagan joined, adopted a functional assessment, noting that the formal designation of someone as a "minister" or the requirement that one be formally ordained in a faith is not dispositive. Rather, courts should focus on the function performed by the individual, applying the exception to an employee who "leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith." The extent to which the lower courts adopt either of these approaches remains to be seen.

Although this opinion should be welcome news to many religious organizations, such employers should take caution not to interpret the Court's decision too broadly. In particular, the Court specifically declined to address whether the ministerial exception bars breach of contract, tortious interference and other claims by employees against their religious employers. Nevertheless, this opinion provides some guidance on the employment rights of religious organizations.