U.S. Supreme Court Recognizes Ministerial Exception and Bars Employment Discrimination Claims by Employees Engaged in Ministerial Functions

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on January 11, 2012, that ministers and other employees of religious organizations who perform "ministerial" duties cannot sue their employers for employment discrimination. This ruling marks the first time the Supreme Court has acknowledged a "ministerial exception" to federal anti-discrimination laws. The exception had previously been recognized only by lower courts. In essence, the ministerial exception provides that the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom shields religious organizations from the reach of employment-related non-discrimination laws.

At issue in this case was whether a former parochial school teacher could bring a discrimination lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act against her church employer. The teacher, Cheryl Perich, had argued that the ministerial exception did not pertain to her employment as a minister at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church's religious school. She began employment at the church as a temporary "lay" (non-ordained) teacher and only later underwent religious training. Following this training, the church promoted her to a "called" (ordained) teacher and hired her as a minister. Perich taught both secular and religious classes at the church and estimated that she spent approximately only 45 minutes a day performing "religious" parts of her job. In 2004, she went on a disability leave and, after not returning for six months, was asked by the church to resign her position. When she refused to do so, the church removed her from her position, and she then filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

When the charge reached a federal district court, it was dismissed pursuant to the ministerial exception under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals later reinstated the lawsuit on the basis that Perich's primary job function was teaching secular subjects, and thus finding the ministerial exception to be inapplicable. In reversing the Sixth Circuit, the Supreme Court noted that the Sixth Circuit placed too much emphasis on the fact that Perich's religious duties were limited in duration and scope. The Court stated: "The amount of time an employee spends on particular activities is relevant in assessing that employee's status [as a religious employee subject to the ministerial exception], but that factor cannot be considered in isolation, without regard to the nature of the religious functions performed."

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