Jan. 20 2012

Supreme Court Confirms Ministerial Exception to Discrimination Laws

Topics: Court Decisions, Discrimination, Harassment & Retaliation

On January 11, 2012 the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, confirming a “ministerial” exception to discrimination laws.

Cheryl Perich worked as a “called” teacher for Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School.  The term “called” means that she underwent a religious “commission” to teach for the school.  Perich developed narcolepsy and began the 2004-2005 school year on disability leave.  In January 2005 she notified the school principal that she would be able to report to work in February.  The principal responded that he had already hired another teacher to work in February.  The principal also expressed concern that Perich was not ready to return to the classroom.  The Church offered to pay a portion of Perich’s medical insurance costs in exchange for her resignation.  Perich refused to resign and told the principal she had spoken with an attorney and intended to assert her legal rights.  The Church then terminated Perich for insubordination and disruptive behavior.

Perich next filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging she was terminated in retaliation for threatening to file a lawsuit in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  At the District Court level Hosanna-Tabor argued that the lawsuit was barred by the “ministerial” exception to the ADA provided by the First Amendment.  The District Court agreed and granted summary judgment in Hosanna-Tabor’s favor.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated that decision because it found that Perich was not a minister under the exception.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeals’ decision and held that there is a ministerial exception to the ADA and that Perich was included within that exception.  The Supreme Court explained that the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment provide a “ministerial” exception to the ADA.  The Court wrote that imposing an unwanted minister on a religious group infringes on the group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.  The Court further explained that Perich was a minister because she had a significant amount of religious training followed by a formal religious commissioning by the school, she held herself out as a minister, and her job duties included conveying the Church’s message in religious instruction.  Therefore, the Court concluded that Perich fell within the “ministerial” exception and could not make a discrimination claim against Hosanna-Tabor.

The Court’s ruling is a positive one for religious organizations.  It assures them a greater freedom to make employment decisions.  However, the Court did not provide much guidance regarding what organizations qualify as a “religious organization” or which employees would qualify as “ministers” to fit within the “ministerial” exception.  Organizations that have concerns about whether they fit within this exception may want to consult with counsel before relying on the exception in making employment decisions.

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About the Editor

Robin Largent represents employers, including major food and retail companies, in all types of employment litigation: wrongful termination, retaliation, breach of contract, wage and hour (California Labor Code) and unfair competition. She also regularly counsels and advises California employers on issues of compliance with California and federal employment laws.
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