By: Michelle D. Patrick, Esq.
The First Amendment provides religious institutions a freedom that private and public employers do not have when making some employment decisions. Religious institutions may be exempt from the anti-discrimination laws governing public and private employees under the “ministerial exemption” for its employees who are deemed “ministers.” In 2012, the Supreme Court affirmed that under certain circumstances the ministerial exemption shields religious institutions from anti-discrimination laws and set forth four factors to consider when determining if the exemption applies. See Hosanna–Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, a case involving a teacher in a religion-sponsored school. Those four factors include the teacher’s title, training, whether the employee held herself out as a minister, and whether or not the job includes “important religious functions.” In two subsequent cases, applying the four factors strictly, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the ministerial exemption did not apply. On July 8, 2020, the United States Supreme Court disagreed with the Ninth Circuit holding that the ministerial exemption should be applied broadly and stating that the Ninth Circuit’s “rigid” application of the four factors “produced a distorted analysis.” See Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel.
Both cases involved Catholic elementary school teachers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. One teacher alleged that she was terminated in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the other alleged termination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The Ninth Circuit, considering the four factors set forth in Hosanna-Tabor, determined that the ministerial exemption did not apply in either case because neither teacher had the formal title of “minister” and they had limited formal religious training and ministerial backgrounds. The Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit, finding that it had used too strict a standard and stating that the Hosanna-Tabor factors were not meant as “checklist items to be assessed and weighed against each other in every case.” Rather, the Supreme Court stated that “all relevant circumstances” should be considered to decide “whether each particular position impacted the fundamental purpose of the exception.” Stating that the factors should be considered as a whole, the Supreme Court looked to the facts that both teachers 1) had been informed that they were expected to carry out the school’s mission of developing and promoting the Catholic faith and community, 2) taught religion in their classrooms, and 3) worshiped and prayed with the students. Based on those factors, the Supreme Court held that the ministerial exemption applied in both cases. The Court opined that all four factors did not need to be met in all cases but rather stated that the important factor is “what an employee does.”
Does the Supreme Court’s decision mean that all employees of religious institutions are now precluded from bringing an employment discrimination claim against their employer? Absolutely not. There are numerous employees who work for religious institutions to which the ministerial exemption clearly would not apply. Those jobs include, but are not limited to, accountants, office staff, janitors, kitchen staff, and nurses. Clearly the employees affected most by this decision are teachers, however the ministerial exemption is not applicable to all teachers. Take for example a high school math teacher. Assuming that the teacher was hired just to teach math, not to carry out religious duties, it is unlikely that the ministerial exemption would apply to that math teacher. That same reasoning would apply to all subject-matter teachers, coaches, orchestra and band teachers, and so on.
The Supreme Court’s decision helped to clarify when the ministerial exemption applies. However, as with all employment law cases, the facts of the case and the duties of the employee are particularly important. If you have any questions about whether you have an employment claim against a religious institution and whether the ministerial exemption applies, you should consult with an employment attorney immediately. The attorneys at The Ezold Law Firm, P.C. are available to provide advice and counsel to assist you in determining if you have a claim against a religious institution. We can be reached at 610-660-5585 or contact us online.