What is a “Ministerial Exception” to Employment Discrimination?

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a ministerial exception to most types of workplace discrimination lawsuits. The case, brought by a parochial school teacher, is one of the most important church-state rulings since 1990.

Hosanna-Tabor is a Lutheran school with two types of teachers—those who worked on a contract basis, and those who had completed a Lutheran course and were considered “commissioned ministers” and “called” in the spiritual sense. Although Cheryl Perich taught a religious class, led prayers, and attended church with students weekly, she taught mostly non-religious subjects. Perich was hired in 1999 as a contract teacher, but completed the Lutheran course. After taking leave due to illness in 2004, Perich sought to return in early 2005, but the church hired a replacement. Perich filed charges with the EEOC, alleging the church violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A Federal district court ruled that her claim was barred by the “ministerial exception,” but the Sixth Circuit Court reversed, reasoning that Perich could not be treated as a “minister” because her duties were not primarily religious. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, explaining that religious organizations have the right to control their internal affairs, including the choice of who will personify the beliefs of the organization.

The decision also reiterated that the ministerial exception only applied to employment discrimination claims, not other claims like breach of contract. As a result of the decision, only a narrow range of discrimination lawsuits brought by employees considered “ministers” within their religious organizations can proceed. A court’s threshold inquiry is whether the plaintiff is a “minister.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission asserted that a ministerial exception should be limited to workers who perform “exclusively religious functions.” The Court rejected this limitation, noting it is unlikely that any employee would do only religious work. The Court found the following factors to be crucial:

  • That employee was formally commissioned or ordained as a “minister” according to the denomination’s internal practices.
  • That employee performed “important religious functions” in addition to teaching of lay subjects in the classroom.
  • That employee’s non-religious duties, however extensive, did not make a difference.

Although the Supreme Court has long recognized the First Amendment rights of religious organizations to control their own affairs, it had not specifically recognized a ministerial exception until this case.

If you have been the victim of any type of workplace discrimination, contact an experienced labor and employment attorney who can evaluate your case.

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