Supreme Court Holds that ‘Ministerial Exception’ Protects Church from Teacher’s Retaliation Claim

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In a significant, unanimous decision last week, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that a “ministerial exception” bars employment discrimination actions brought by employees who fall within this exception against religious employers. Relying upon the “religion clauses” of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court held that the exception barred the retaliation claim of a teacher who was also a commissioned minister. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C.

The employee involved in the case, Cheryl Perich, began working for the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School as an elementary school teacher in 1999. At that time, Perich functioned as a “lay” teacher, meaning that she was not required to be Lutheran or trained in church doctrine. She then completed the requirements to become a “called” teacher and received the formal title of “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.” While lay teachers at Hosanna-Tabor were appointed to one-year renewable terms of employment, called teachers served for an open-ended term, and their call could only be rescinded by a supermajority vote of the congregation. Perich’s job duties were generally the same before and after she became a called teacher, and she continued to teach a variety of secular subjects as well as religion classes.

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