July 15, 2014
by John Kaempf


Teachers and other employees of religious schools sometimes sue for discrimination, including claims under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The law, however, recognizes a ministerial exception to such claims based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states, in relevant part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The ministerial exception precludes application of employment discrimination statutes to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 132 Supreme Court 694 (2012), the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the validity of the ministerial exception. The Court held that it applied to bar ADA claims asserted by Cheryl Perich, who taught math and other secular subjects, as well as a religion class, at the religious elementary school at issue. Significantly, the Court rejected the argument that because Perich did not perform “exclusively religious functions,” the religious school that employed her could not rely on the ministerial exception as a defense to her ADA claims. Thus, the Court recognized that teachers who teach both religious and secular subjects can still be deemed “ministers.”
Id. at 708-709.

In Hosanna-Tabor, Perich “accepted the call” to teach at a religious elementary school. She “taught math, language arts, social studies, science, gym, art, and music. She also taught a religion 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.” Id. at 700. She was later diagnosed with narcolepsy. The school decided that it no longer had a position for her, but she responded that she had spoken with an attorney and intended to assert her legal rights. The school then terminated her. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) then sued the school, alleging that Perich was fired in retaliation for threatening to file an ADA lawsuit. The school responded that the lawsuit should be dismissed based on the ministerial exception because Perich was a “minister,” and she had been fired for a religious reason-namely, that her threat to sue violated the defendant’s belief that Christians should resolve their disputes internally. Id. at 700-701.

The Court in Hosanna-Tabor agreed with the defendant and dismissed the lawsuit. The Court held that the religion clauses of the First Amendment “bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.” Id. at 702. The Court confirmed “the existence of a ‘ministerial exception,’ grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes application of such legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.” Id. at 705-706. The Court stated that 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. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.” Id. at 706.

The Court further held that “the ministerial exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation,” but stated that it is “reluctant, however, to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister. It is enough for us to conclude, in this our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers Perich, given all the circumstances of her employment.” Id. at 707. The Court relied on the fact that the school held Perich out as a minister, she had received “a significant degree of religious training,” and she “taught her students religion four days a week, and led them in prayer three times a day.” Id. at 707-708. The Court also held that a lower court “placed too much emphasis on Perich’s performance of secular duties. It is true that her religious duties consumed only 45 minutes of each workday, and that the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects. The EEOC regards that as conclusive, contending that any ministerial exception ‘should be limited to those employees who perform exclusively religious functions.’ We cannot accept that view. Indeed, we are unsure whether any such employees exist. The heads of congregations themselves often have a mix of duties, including secular ones such as helping to manage the congregation’s finances, supervising purely secular personnel, and overseeing the upkeep of facilities. *** The issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch.” Id. at 708-709.

The Court in Hosanna-Tabor concluded its opinion as follows: “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.” Id. at 710.

Therefore, pursuant to the Hosanna-Tabor case, religious schools that employ teachers who serve as both ministers and teachers of secular subjects like math can rely on the ministerial exception to discrimination claims brought by such teachers. Religious schools do not have to show that the teacher performed exclusively religious functions. The Hosanna-Tabor case is a significant win for religious schools and churches that seek to uphold their First Amendment right to hire and fire ministers of their own choosing without court interference.