Legal Alert: Supreme Court Addresses "Ministerial Exception" to Discrimination Laws


On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court issued what is arguably one of its most significant religious liberty decisions in two decades. The Supreme Court unanimously held that a teacher at a Lutheran School could not maintain an action under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) arising out of her discharge. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al., 565 U.S. ___, No. 10-553 (2012), stated that the "ministerial" exception to the application of such employment discrimination laws was grounded in the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment and should be applied to this teacher because she was a minister within the meaning of the "ministerial" exception.

This was the first time the Supreme Court acknowledged the existence of the "ministerial exception," a concept uniformly recognized by the federal appeals courts. The ministerial exception is grounded in the First Amendment and precludes application of such legislation as Title VII and other employment discrimination laws to claims concerning the relationship between a religious institution and its ministers. According to the Supreme Court, "such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs."

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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