U.S. Supreme Court Interprets Ministerial Exception Under Federal Employment Laws

The U.S. Supreme Court’s important decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. EEOC has gotten a lot of attention in the media and rightfully so.  It is a fundamental First Amendment case in which a unanimous Supreme Court determined that employees of religious organizations who qualify as “ministers” of the organization are barred from bringing employment discrimination suits against their religious employers.

The Decision

The facts of the Hosanna-Tabor case concerned an elementary school teacher who taught religion courses.  She was titled a “commissioned minister” rather than a “lay teacher.”  She filed a disability discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  The trial court determined that the plaintiff was unable to bring the EEOC claim under a “ministerial exception” to federal employment law.  The appellate court, however, analyzed the plaintiff’s job duties and found that she was not a “minister” and that the “ministerial exception” did not apply.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the appellate court, confirming that the “ministerial exception” to federal employment discrimination laws is grounded in the religion clauses of the First Amendment and holding that an expanded reading of the “ministerial exception” is required to protect a religious organization’s constitutional right to select “those who would personify its beliefs.”  The Court was clear, however, that its decision does not determine whether the “ministerial exception” bars non-discrimination employment claims, such as breach of contract and torts – saying “there will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.” And arise they will.

Significance for Religious Organizations

What does the Hosanna-Tabor decision mean to religious organizations in Minnesota – churches, schools, religious-affiliated social services agencies, hospitals, and the like?

It means that there must be a very close analysis made as part of any employment decision on the “status” of the employer.  The essential questions will be:  is the employee a “minister” or a “lay” employee?  For ministers, a religious organization employer is not held to the legal requirements of the federal discrimination laws.  For a lay employee, it is.

How can the religious organization employer make this determination?  Like any landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, refinements will be years in the making.  But the facts of the Hosanna-Tabor case tell us that an employee traditionally thought of by many as a “lay employee” (a teacher with only some religious education duties) does qualify for the exception.  The criteria discussed by the U.S. Supreme Court is very general, and the Court itself states that it “does not adopt a rigid formula for deciding whether an employee qualifies as a minister.”  The criteria identified by the Court in Hosanna-Tabor focuses on:

  1. Whether the organization “held out” the employee as a minister with a “role distinct from that of most of its members;”
  2. Whether the position “represented the significant degree of religious training followed by the formal process of commissioning;”
  3. Whether the employee “held herself out as a minister;” and
  4. Whether the “job duties” reflected a role of conveying the church’s message in carrying out its mission as a source of religious instruction.

The basic question will be — did the employee play an important part in transmitting the religious organization’s faith?  The Court made clear that job duties that mix secular and religious duties do not necessarily make an employee a lay employee.

Takeaways: First, a Minnesota religious organization needs to be careful when drafting its job descriptions so that “ministerial” employees are clearly given duties consistent with the ministerial exception.  Second, when dealing with any significant employment decision regarding an employee whose status is not obviously that of a “lay” employee, legal counsel may be helpful in determining whether that employee qualifies for the ministerial exception to the federal discrimination laws.  Incorrectly assuming a lay employee falls under the “ministerial exception” may lead to liability in some cases.

About Neal Buethe

Neal Buethe is Head of Briggs and Morgan’s Employment, Benefits and Labor Section. Neal represents professionals, executives, for-profit employers, and non-profit organizations in employment and related matters. He is general counsel to several non-profit corporations, including religious organizations. For Neal’s full bio, click here.

Posted on January 18, 2012, in Discrimination and Harassment. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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