On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC (“Hosanna-Tabor”). The decision upheld a religious church-school’s termination of a teacher based on the “ministerial exception” and ruled that employment discrimination lawsuits are barred when the employer is a religious group or organization and the employee is one of the group or organization’s ministers. 

Both the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 contain exemptions that entitle religious institutions to discriminate on the basis of religion – but they do not permit such institutions to discriminate on other legally protected basis, such as race, sex, or disability. The federal courts of appeals, however, have long recognized a broader, ministerial exception: a First Amendment doctrine that bars most employment-related lawsuits brought against religious organizations (“religious employers”) by employees performing religious functions. The circuits have been in agreement about the core applications of the doctrine to pastors, priests and rabbis, but have been divided over the boundaries of the ministerial exception when applied to other employees, particularly those whose duties are more secular in nature.

The question presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hosanna-Tabor case was whether the ministerial exception applied to a teacher at a religious elementary school who taught a full secular curriculum and predominately engaged in secular duties, was a designated “called teacher,” taught religion classes, and regularly lead students in prayer.

Put a bit more simply: the Court was asked whether or not Cheryl Perich could sue her former church-school employer, the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church (“Hosanna-Tabor”), for discrimination under the ADA.

In this case, the EEOC filed suit on Ms. Perich’s behalf and against Hosanna-Tabor, claiming that the religious employer had unlawfully terminated her employment in violation of the ADA and, specifically, that it wrongfully fired her in retaliation for her threat to sue the church-run elementary school under the ADA.

In defense of the termination, Hosanna-Tabor claimed that Ms. Perich was a minister, and that, therefore, it had a First Amendment right to fire her for threatening to sue, which was contrary to their belief that Lutherans should resolve their disputes internally, and not within the courts.

In response, Ms. Perich argued that she was not a minister, just a teacher, and argued that Hosanna-Tabor had violated her federal statutory rights to protection against disability discrimination. Although most of Ms. Perich’s duties and teaching subjects were secular, she was a “called” teacher with some religious responsibilities, and the “called” designation was one conferred by the church. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that because, functionally, Ms. Perich was a secular teacher with few religious obligations, she was not a minister. As such, the Sixth Circuit concluded that Hosanna-Tabor did not have a First Amendment defense, and that Ms. Perich could pursue her ADA claims.  

In the Hosanna-Tabor decision, the Supreme Court rejected the Sixth Circuit’s analysis and concluded that Perich was a minister and, therefore, barred from pursuing her ADA claims.

The Supreme Court’s Decision
By the Hosanna-Tabor decision, the Court held that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment serve as an absolute bar to employment discrimination suits brought on behalf of ministers against their religious employers; upheld the principle that it is impermissible for the government to contradict a church’s determination of who can act as its ministers; and provided a fairly broad definition of “minister,” making clear that the designation is not limited to ordained clergy or their counterparts. 

The Court did not address whether or not the bar may also apply to other types of suits brought by ministers against their religious employers – such as breach of contract or tortious interference claims. 

Further, the Court did not articulate a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister, choosing instead to apply a case-by-case approach which looks at the totality of the circumstances surrounding both the employee and the employment. 

In a Nutshell…

  • The Court’s decision confirms that the ministerial exception bars ministers from bringing employment discrimination suits against their religious employers.
  • However, this bar only applies to employment discrimination suits brought by ministers, not employment discrimination suits brought by other lay employees.
  • Further, the Court did not address whether or not the bar may also apply to other types of suits brought by ministers against their religious employers – such as breach of contract or tortious interference claims. 
  • The decision establishes the ministerial exception as an affirmative defense, rather than a jurisdictional bar – meaning that unless the employer timely pleads the defense, it will be waived.

The Significance To Religious Employers and Employees
In light of this decision, religious employers must analyze whether an employee in question qualifies as a minister when making any employment decisions that could give rise to potential employment discrimination claims.  Such required analysis must keep in mind that the definition of a “minister” may be broader than one might expect. 

Further, because it is unclear whether or not the bar applies to other types of suits brought by ministers against their religious employers, such employers will still need to carefully evaluate all employment decisions for potential legal exposure – even for those employees who qualify as ministers.

Similarly, employees of religious institutions should be aware that, should the ministerial exception apply to them, they will be precluded from bringing employment discrimination claims against their employers and may be precluded from bringing other types of suits against their religious employers.  In addition, employees that may not consider themselves “ministers,” may, in fact, qualify for the designation, thereby being subject to the bar against bringing employment discrimination, and, potentially, other claims against their religious employers.