Carie Charlesworth was fired from her job as a second grade teacher at Holy Trinity Catholic School after her ex-husband was arrested for threatening the safety of the students. Ms. Charlesworth had taken out a restraining order against her ex-husband, but the Diocese of San Diego decided that her continued employment at the school created a sustained threat to the safety of the students, as her husband had ignored the order. While Ms. Charlesworth is suing the Diocese under federal anti-discrimination laws, the Diocese may have a defense under ministerial exception.
What is ministerial exception?
Under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Congress and each individual state is barred from making a law that impinges on freedom of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court applied the First Amendment in the 2012 case of Hosanna-Tabor, where a teacher of a church-operated school in Michigan who was also an ordained Lutheran minister was fired after developing narcolepsy. The teacher filed suit under federal anti-discrimination laws, but the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment bars ministers from bringing employment discrimination suits against the church that employed them, recognizing a ministerial exception to federal anti-discrimination laws.
To whom does ministerial exception apply?
The ruling in Hosanna-Tabor seems to suggest that the exception applies only to lawsuits brought by ministers, but the definition of a minister is a matter that requires clarification. In Hosanna-Tabor, the teacher was an ordained minister and taught classes on religion at the school. In Kant, an ongoing case in Kentucky, a Jewish professor at a Christian theological seminary was ruled to be a minister and therefore unable to file suit, although he does not practice the religion of the seminary and taught classes about other religions. Whether the Diocese of San Diego can raise the defense of ministerial exception may depend on whether Ms. Charlesworth’s role as a teacher qualifies her as a minister.
Posted in Discrimination, Employment Law
Tagged anti-discrimination laws, ministerial exception, wrongful termination