The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of religious institutions to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government, faith, and doctrine. This right gives religious employers a level of freedom from government and legal scrutiny over certain employment decisions, particularly whom it chooses to hire and fire for certain positions within the institution. This freedom is called the “ministerial exception” to federal employment discrimination laws.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment’s ministerial exception barred a court from considering an employment discrimination claim brought by an elementary school teacher who worked at an evangelical church and school. That case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U. S. 171 (2012), set a loose framework for applying the ministerial exception. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court emphasized and relied upon the teacher’s job title, “Minister of Religion, Commissioned,” her educational training, and her responsibility to teach religion and participate with students in religious activities, in deciding that application of the exception was appropriate.
On July 8, 2020, in a 7 to 2 opinion that resolved two consolidated cases (Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru), the Court refined the framework for this exception and clarified how the ministerial exception should be applied. The result – a broader interpretation and likely application of the exception by federal courts going forward.
The Court’s July decision resolved two separate cases from different federal courts and claims by two different elementary teachers at different Catholic schools. In both cases, the teachers had teaching responsibilities similar to the teacher in the Hosanna-Tabor case, but these teachers were not given the title of “minister” and had teaching credentials, training, and experience, but no formal religious training prior to coming to teach at their respective religious institutions.
In contrast to the Court’s 2012 opinion, the Court’s recent opinion de-emphasized the job titles and specifically rejected the idea that the employee in question had to hold the job of “minister” or some other express religious leader title. According to the Court, in determining whether the ministerial exception applies, the primary consideration should be the tasks a worker actually performs (not the job title). In these cases, the Court said that although neither was held out as a “minister,” the two workers performed “vital religious duties such as educating their students in the Catholic faith and guiding their students to live … in accordance with that faith,” and thus were entrusted with carrying out the “religious mission of the organization.”
The first case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, involved a claim by a lay fifth/sixth grade teacher, with no prior formal religious study or training, who taught all subjects to her students, including secular subjects, as well as religion. In addition to teaching religion, she prepared her students for participation in Mass, communion and confession. She also led her students in prayer at the beginning and end of every school day. After many years, Ms. Morrissey-Berru was moved to a part-time position, and the following year, the school declined to renew her contract. She filed a discrimination claim, alleging that the school’s decision was discriminatory based on her age.
The second case, St. James School v. Biel, involved facts very similar to the first – an elementary school teacher with no formal religious training, but with responsibility for teaching and participating in her student’s religious education and involvement in religious activities such as Mass and prayer, in addition to her responsibility for teaching secular subjects. Like the first, the school declined to renew Ms. Biel’s contract, so she filed a claim asserting that the school’s decision was discriminatory and based on her request for leave to obtain treatment for breast cancer.
In both cases, the district court sided with the schools and dismissed the claims based on the ministerial exception. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed both decisions, however, relying on the respective lack of religious training, and because the teachers did not hold the title “minister” and did not hold themselves out as religious leaders.
The Supreme Court reversed both decisions, determining that the ministerial exception applied, and thus, prohibited the courts from considering the teachers’ claims. The Court said, “although these teachers were not given the title of ‘minister’ and have less religious training than [the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor] … their cases fall within the same rule.” The Court emphasized that “the religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission.”
Potential for Far-Reaching Application Beyond Schools, Ministers and Teachers
The Court’s broad standard potentially allows religiously affiliated employers to rely on the exception to defend claims from a wide array of employees, whether those employees hold job positions as “ministers,” and whether they are even educators. The Court found it significant that both Morrissey-Berru and Biel signed employment contracts that explained that the school’s hiring and retention decisions would be guided by its Catholic mission, and made clear that they were expected to model and promote Catholic faith and morals. Moreover, the Court’s rationale is not limited to parochial schools or religious educational institutions.
Going forward, any religiously affiliated employer now has a good-faith basis to assert the ministerial exception in defense of claim that involves a job position which involves carrying out, fulfilling, or communicating religious faith in any way, so long as the employer can tether these responsibilities to the position in question.
The decision does not give religious employers a “get out of jail free” card or a blanket exemption for all employment decisions, but the decision does give religious employers greater freedom and autonomy in their employment decisions, so long as the position in question has some obligation to support and promote the organization’s religious tenets and philosophies.
Some will worry that the decision gives religious employers the right to discriminate, unchecked and without consequence, but the tension between religious freedom and government intervention has always existed. This was a 7 to 2 decision; five justices who are viewed as conservative and two who are viewed as liberal joined in the majority and sided with the institutions. This suggests that the right of religious institutions to be free from government oversight bends in favor of the institutions from both perspectives, so long as there is a legitimate, good faith connection between the employer’s decision and its goal of promoting and supporting its religious beliefs and teachings.
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