The Supreme Court Hears Case on Ministerial Exception

On October 5, 2011, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (Docket No. 10-553), a case involving the ministerial exception’s application to a grade school teacher who was also a commissioned minister.  This case will be the first time the Supreme Court will weigh in on the ministerial exception’s application to employees of religious organizations.

Under employment law, employers are prohibited from making hiring or firing decisions based on certain characteristics like gender, race, and disability.  The ministerial exception, however, exempts religious organizations from these laws and bars any suit seeking to enforce them.  While the courts have consistently applied the exception to individuals whose primary role is promoting faith, there has been considerable disagreement as to whether the exception also applies to the employees of a religious organization whose primary role is secular in nature.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Hosanna-Tabor may clarify the exception’s application.  In Hosanna-Tabor, Cheryl Perich was fired after threatening to file suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act against her employer, Hosanna-Tabor Church and School.  While at Hosanna-Tabor, Perich was a commissioned minister and a “called” teacher.  As part of her teaching duties, Perich taught a full secular curriculum as well as a daily religion class.  Perich also led students in prayer and worship.  Though “called” teachers received tenure and could only be terminated with cause, their duties and functions did not differ from those of non-Lutheran or contract teachers.

The District Court granted summary judgment for Hosanna-Tabor finding Hosanna-Tabor treated Perich as a minister and that it could not adjudicate Perich’s claim without exploring religious doctrine in violation of the First Amendment.  The Sixth Circuit disagreed and reversed.  The court concluded that the ministerial exception only applies if the employee’s primary duties are religious and found that Perich’s duties were not primarily religious because she spent a “majority of her day teaching secular subjects using secular books.”  The Supreme Court then granted certiorari.

If the Justices’ questions during oral argument are any indication, the central issue will be how to define the scope of the ministerial exception’s application.  In particular, Justice Sotomayor questioned whether the exception should apply to individuals who are fired after reporting child abuse while Justice Kennedy expressed concern that the exception bars all legal recourse, including a hearing.  Justices Roberts, however, took issue with the EEOC’s argument that the line should be drawn where the employee has “important secular functions.”

It is still unclear how the Court will rule in this case, but a decision is expected next summer.

For more information, please contact Patrick Peters at ppeters@beneschlaw.com, or (216) 363-4434.

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