Ministerial Exception to Discrimination Cases for Religious workers

April 2, 2012

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (No. 10-553), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that the First Amendment precludes the application of federal employment-discrimination laws to religious institutions' personnel decisions involving workers with religious duties.
In its decision the Supreme Court formally recognized the "ministerial exception" as legal doctrine.

A former teacher at a church-run Lutheran grade school sued the church, where she worked, for disability-based discrimination after the church rescinded her "call" as a "commissioned minister" and fired her as a third- and fourth-grade teacher. Although the federal trial court dismissed the case, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decided that, notwithstanding her "call," the teacher's "primary duties" were secular, rather than religious, and that the case could go forward.

The case went up to the United States Supreme Court. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the Court's opinion and stated: "We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers. There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other employment-discrimination disputes circumstances if and when they arise."

Anthony R. Picarello Jr., the general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated that the "decision affirms the common-sense proposition that religious schools must be free to choose religion teachers based on religion, without interference from the state."

The justices were emphatic in stating their view that interfering with a church's ability to hire or fire those it regards as ministers violates two clauses of the First Amendment: the free-exercise clause, which, they said, "protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments," and the establishment clause, which prohibits government involvement in such religious decisions.