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By: Michael Hill
The Supreme Court has clarified the so-called “ministerial exception” to federal employment laws, such that it is not necessarily limited to leadership positions in a religious institution. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Court held that the employment relationship between a religious organization and an employee who performs core religious duties, regardless of job title, is protected from government scrutiny. This means that federal employment discrimination laws are inapplicable to these employment relationships.
The ministerial exception derives from the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. It is the separation of church and state put into practice. Since the Constitution forbids the government from establishing a religion, or impermissibly intermingling in religious affairs, the government cannot tell a religious organization whom it can or cannot employ to perform vital religious functions. To allow such government interference would threaten the very independence of religion that the First Amendment was designed to protect.
Some courts previously thought this exception applied only to “leadership” positions in a religious organization. Indeed, this was the dissent’s primary argument. The plaintiffs in Our Lady of Guadalupe School and the consolidated case of St. James School v. Biel both were teachers in parochial schools who alleged claims of unlawful discrimination in their employment (one based on age, the other based on disability). Neither employee had the title of “minister.” Yet the Supreme Court held that official job title is not dispositive. What matters for the ministerial exception is what the employee does. The teachers in these schools played a vital role in educating and guiding their students in the faith. That factor, for the majority, should be the focus of the analysis. The majority also held that courts should give deference to a religious institution’s explanation of the role its employees play in the life of the religion in question. Because the ministerial exception applies to these positions, the federal discrimination laws under which the plaintiffs sued have no authority.
For religious organizations, the ministerial exception can be a powerful defense to claims of unlawful employment discrimination. Looking forward, the Court’s opinion in Our Lady of Guadalupe School opens the door to applying the ministerial exception to other job positions, not just to parochial-school teachers, so long as the employee’s job involves performing vital religious duties. Such employers should review the job positions in their organization and seek the advice of counsel to be sure they are applying the law correctly.
If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Michael Hill at [email protected].