U.S. Supreme Court Strengthens the Ministerial Exception

 In a 7-2 decision authored by Justice Alito, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the ministerial exception set forth in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  (Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, Case Nos. 19-267 and 19-348 (July 8, 2020)(“OLG”)).

In Hosanna-Tabor, an elementary school teacher was barred from bringing a discrimination claim against a religious school under the First Amendment religion clauses.  The Court based its decision on the facts that the teacher’s title including the word Minister, her religious training, her holding herself out to the public as a minister and claiming certain tax benefits, her participating with students in religious activities, and her job duties reflecting a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.  The Ninth Circuit declined to follow this decision in two separate cases primarily because the teachers in those cases did not have the title of Minister and because they did not have the extensive religious training of the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor.  Both of these cases were combined for review, and in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and held that both elementary school teachers were subject to the ministerial exception and could not maintain discrimination claims against Catholic elementary schools. 

In OLG, the Court found it instructive that the teachers’ contracts set forth the schools’ mission to develop and promote a Catholic school faith community.  Both teachers taught religion in the classroom, prayed with students, worshipped with students, personally modeled faith, and their performance was judged in part on religious bases.  The Court clarified that the ministerial exception factors addressed in Hosanna-Tabor are not a checklist that must be strictly followed.  Rather, what matters is what an employee does with regard to educating young people in faith.  The Court held that “religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission.”

Take-aways from this decision are that religious institutions such as places of worship, schools, and charities should set forth the religious nature of their entities in corporate documents like by-laws and organizational documents like employee handbooks to preserve and document the religious mission of the organization and how employees reaffirm these goals.  The OLG decision makes clear that the ministerial exception is not limited to the clergy, but also applies to employees involved in work at the core of the entity’s mission.   

Details of job descriptions and day-to-day duties of employees who interact with others to advance a religious mission may prove important to establish the exception.  On the other hand, where job descriptions and day-to-day duties are of a generic nature and not distinct when occurring at a religious institution the details again may prove important to disprove the exception. 

An unanswered question is how far does the ministerial exception apply?  While OLG and Hosanna-Tabor were cases dealing with federal discrimination laws, they noted that the First Amendment does not permit courts to intervene in employment disputes.  This ruling would indicate that other types of employment disputes such as a common law wrongful termination claim might be subject to the ministerial exception as well as torts arising out of such a termination such as intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Employers with questions about this ruling may contact one of the authors or their usual employment law counsel at AALRR to discuss.

This AALRR post is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship. The Firm is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process.

© 2020 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo

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