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“Ministerial Exception” Broadened by U.S. Supreme Court

On Behalf of | Sep 1, 2020 | Employment Law

Grounded in the protections of the First Amendment, the “Ministerial Exception” protects religious employers against various discrimination claims brought by certain employees. The 2012 case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC set forth specific factors to determine applicability. Those factors included: (1) the existence of a formal religious title; (2) the existence of formal religious training, and (3) whether the employee is held out to the public as a minister.

Two recent cases involving the Catholic Church challenged this notion. In both cases, the Catholic schools were granted summary judgment under the “Ministerial Exception.” However, the Ninth Circuit reversed the decisions. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the appellate court relied on the Hosanna factors and found that the plaintiff lacked a formal title, had limited formal religious education, and, was not held out to the public as a minister, all of which outweighed her religious responsibilities. As such, the court held the exception did not apply. In Biel v. St. James School, the court similarly held that the plaintiff lacked the requisite “credentials, training, and ministerial background” to qualify for the exception. Both schools appealed to the Supreme Court.

Consolidating the cases, the Supreme Court reversed both decisions, holding that both employees qualified as ministers under the exception and were barred from proceeding with claims against the schools. In doing so, the Court explained that “[a]mong other things, the Religion Clauses [of the First Amendment] protect the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters ‘of faith and doctrine’ without government intrusion.”

In its ruling, the Court noted the rigidity of a strict application of factors alone, and, found that whether a person has the term “minister” in their title is not as important as their core responsibilities. The Court pointed to evidence that the teachers in these cases performed vital religious duties, specifically set forth in their employment agreements and handbooks, to further the mission of developing and promoting the Catholic faith. Similarly, their employment performance was reviewed on religious instruction, worship, and personal modeling of faith. Moreover, as religion teachers, they had the primary responsibility of educating students about their faith, including praying with them in class and worshiping in Mass together.

Now, the “Ministerial Exception” is further expanded to direct courts to not merely look at the factors set forth in Hosanna, but by examining the employee’s position and actual responsibilities. This broader view strengthens the ability of religious employers to assert the “Ministerial Exception” defense in employment discrimination cases. However, it would also be prudent for religious employers to take steps in ensuring that an employee’s title, training, and description are in alignment with their actual responsibilities, creating an even stronger argument that they are ministers and fall within the exception.