The U.S. Supreme Court Expands Protection for Religious Employers Against Discrimination Claims

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On July 8, 2020, the United States Supreme Court expanded the “ministerial exception” – a legal doctrine that exempts religious employers from certain discrimination laws in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.  The decision broadened the reach of the exception, which was previously validated by the Court in 2002 in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.  Given the broad reach of the recent decision, various religious institutions will now have a strong defense against discrimination claims brought by employees who perform faith-based functions.

By way of background, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Hosanna-Tabor that the First Amendment barred a court from entertaining an employment discrimination claim brought by a teacher against her religious school employer.  The Court held that the school’s First Amendment right protected religious institutions from state interference on matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine. Adopting the “ministerial exception,” the Supreme Court articulated factors for when the ministerial exception should apply. These factors included: whether the employer held the employee out as a minister with a formal religious title; whether the employee’s title reflected ministerial substance and training; whether the employee held herself out as a minister; and whether the employee’s job duties included “important religious functions.”

In Morrissey-Berru, two elementary school teachers at Roman Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles filed claims of discrimination.  Agnes Morrissey-Berru sued her employer under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and Kristen Biel sued her employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Both religious employers asserted the ministerial exception and prevailed on summary judgment at the district court level.  However, the Ninth Circuit reversed both decisions, reasoning that, the employers did not satisfy the Hosanna-Tabor factors.  The Ninth Circuit found that the religious entities could not invoke the ministerial exception against these teachers because the teachers did not maintain the title of “minister,” had limited religious training, and only sporadic experience in ministerial activities. 

On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit misapplied the Court’s Hosanna-Tabor ruling.  The Court explained that the previously promulgated four factors were not meant to impose a “rigid formula.”  The Court further held that in deciding whether the ministerial exception is to be applied, a court must “take all relevant circumstances into account and determine whether each particular position implicate(s) the fundamental purpose of the exception.”

In finding that the two teachers fell within the ministerial exception, the Supreme Court looked at the teachers’ employment agreements and handbooks.  The respective records unambiguously showed that the teachers were expected to carry out the school’s mission of developing and promoting the Catholic faith. Further, the record showed that the religious employers imposed commitments regarding religious instruction, worship, and personal modeling of the faith and explained that their performance would be reviewed on those bases. Lastly, the Court looked at the fact that the teachers taught religion in the classroom and worshipped and prayed with the students.  Given these circumstances, the Court held that the employers were covered by the ministerial exception, and therefore, their discrimination claims were barred.

The Morrissey-Berru decision provides religious organizations a valuable defense that may apply in employment claims alleging discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. Religious organizations should review and update their policies, employee handbooks, and employment offers in light of the ruling and work with counsel to understand the nuanced use of the defense.

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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