Saturday, January 14, 2012

U.S. Supreme Court on Ministerial Exception to Title VII

The U.S. Supreme Court decided for the first time that there is a "ministerial exception" to anti-discrimination laws such as the ADA. The lower courts for many years recognized that exception.

At issue was Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School and its discharge of a former teacher, Cheryl Perich. Perich was classified as a "called" teacher, rather than a "lay" one. Called teachers have to satisfy certain requirements, cannot be removed except for cause and by a vote of the congregation, and hold the title “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.”

As a called teacher, Perich 

taught math, language arts, social stud- ies, science, gym, art, and music. She also taught a reli- gion class four days a week, led the students in prayer and devotional exercises each day, and attended a weekly school-wide chapel service. Perich led the chapel service herself about twice a year.
Perich developed symptoms of narcolepsy, which resulted in her inability to perform her job. She later was discharged, after she threatened to file a Charge. The EEOC took up her case and sued on her behalf.

The District Court dismissed the case; the Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that a retaliation claim under the ADA could proceed against the Church.
The unanimous Court, recognizing there is a ministerial exception, put it this way:

We agree that there is such a ministerial exception. The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.
The Court did not set out a specific test, but noted that (1) the Church held Perich out to be a minister (2) the Church had a ceremony and the congregation was involved in her investiture (3) she had significant religious training as a prerequisite (4) she held herself out to be a minister and even took a special tax deduction applicable only to members of a ministry (5) her duties involved significant religious teaching activities.

Based on that, the Court decided that Perich met the standards of the ministerial exemption.  The Court was careful to note that the term "minister" was misleading because the exception applies to religions that do not include "ministers."  The Court also refused to address the "parade of horribles" the EEOC argued, such as that Church employers would be exempt from wage-hour or criminal violations towards "ministerial" employees.  

The case is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Perich and the opinion is here.