Earlier this month in a case styled Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a significant decision for religious employers throughout the country.  For the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a ministerial exception to employment discrimination suits.  The ministerial exception bars discrimination claims by individuals in the clergy against certain religious organizations or religious educational institutions under the theory that government regulation of religion is prohibited by the First Amendment freedom of religion.

In Hosanna-Tabor, a teacher who held the title of “Minister of Religion, Commissioned” sued her employer — Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School — when she was fired after being diagnosed with narcolepsy and missing the start of the school year.  She ultimately claimed retaliation under the ADA and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act.

Consistent with a long line of federal appellate court decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court first determined that a ministerial exception exists with regard to employment discrimination claims.  The Court then applied the exception to the teacher’s claims.

In determining that the exception applied to the claims brought by the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor, the Court considered the teacher’s title (Minister of Religion, Commissioned), the significant degree of training and the formal process of commissioning reflected by the title, the teacher’s use of the title, and the important religious functions that the teacher performed for the church.  Because the teacher was a minister within the meaning of the exception, the Court determined that the First Amendment requires dismissal of her suit against her religious employer.

Although the Court expressed no view regarding whether the ministerial exception bars actions such as those brought by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers, the Hosanna-Tabor decision makes it clear that the ministerial exception bars an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister who is challenging her church’s decision to fire her.  The Court explained: “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.”

Matt Hansberry focuses his practice in the areas of employment litigation and ski-industry defense. Mr. Hansberry has defended companies and management in both federal court and state court cases. He has also defended employers before the West Virginia Human Rights Commission.
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