By Jack B. Harrison on January 12, 2012
On January 11, 2012, in a sweeping unanimous decision, the Supreme Court recognized for the first time a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws. The Supreme Court declared that churches and other religious groups must be free to choose and dismiss their leaders without government interference. This decision will have significant implications for religious institutions, including schools and universities, and their employees.
The case, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 10-553, was brought by Cheryl Perich, a teacher at a Lutheran school in Redford, Michigan. Ms. Perich claimed she was fired in retaliation for pursuing an employment discrimination claim based on a disability, narcolepsy. Ms. Perich had taught mostly secular subjects but also taught religion classes, had taken religious training in order to receive the designation of “a called teacher,” and attended chapel with her class.
The Supreme Court left open the question of exactly what employees the “ministerial exception” would apply to. At a minimum, it would appear clear that the exception would apply not only to ministers, priests, rabbis and other religious leaders, but also teachers in religious schools with some formal religious training who teach religious subjects to students. Justice Thomas, in a concurrence, expressed the opinion that the decision as to who was a “minister” under the exception should be left up to religious bodies. In contrast, Justice Alito, in a concurrence joined by Justice Kagan, expressed the opinion that the exception must not be focused only on those who carry the title “minister,” as that title was primarily confined to Protestant Christian denominations, nor should it focus on ordination as the primary focus for the exception.
For employers who are religious institutions, this decision provides a powerful defense against employment discrimination actions when the employee at issue is involved in some fashion in the religious function of the institution.