US Supreme Court Confirms Ministerial Exeption

The US Supreme Court recently confirmed the applicability of the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” which precludes the application of employment discrimination laws to ministers. In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Church and School v. EEOC, 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012), the Supreme Court held the ministerial exception precluded a teacher’s claim of disability discrimination against her church school employer. The church school claimed that it terminated the teacher because she violated the church’s commitment to internal dispute resolution. The teacher claimed that the religious reason given for her firing was merely pretext to her disability (narcolepsy).

The church school argued that because the minister was a “called” teacher (i.e., she was “called” by God to her vocation, is Lutheran, and has theological training), the government could not interfere with its termination decision. By contrast, a “lay” teacher is not required to have theological training or be Lutheran.  The Court agreed with the church school.  First, the Supreme Court held that the teacher was also a minister, as her job duties included teaching religious classes and performing religious services. Second, the Court held that under the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause “bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.” “The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.” 

The Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor may bolster religious employers’ arguments that courts cannot interfere with the dismissal of an employee/minister, even when an employee alleges that the true reasons for the termination were hidden behind pretextual religious reasons.

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