Supremes Back Church’s Employment Decision
January 16, 2012
On January 11, 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a church that makes employment-related decisions with respect to its “ministers” is free from any employment discrimination suits brought by the affected employee. In a rare unanimous decision, the Court held that the ministerial exception acts as an absolute bar to such suits.(1)
Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School is a member congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The Synod classifies its school teachers into two categories: “called” and “lay.” “Called” teachers are regarded as having been called to their vocation by God. To be eligible to be considered “called,” a teacher must complete certain academic requirements, including a course of theological study. Once called, a teacher receives the formal title “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.” “Lay” teachers, by contrast, are not required to be trained by the Synod or even to be Lutheran. Although lay and called teachers at Hosanna-Tabor generally performed the same duties, lay teachers were hired only when called teachers were unavailable.
After Cheryl Perich completed the required training, Hosanna-Tabor asked her to become a called teacher. Perich accepted the call and was designated a commissioned minister. In addition to teaching secular subjects, Perich taught a religion class, led her students in daily prayer and devotional exercises, and took her students to a weekly school-wide chapel service. Perich led the chapel service herself about twice a year.
Perich developed narcolepsy and began the 2004-2005 school year on disability leave. In January 2005, she notified the school principal that she would be able to report to work in February. The principal responded that the school had already contracted with a lay teacher to fill Perich’s position for the remainder of the school year. The principal also expressed concern that Perich was not yet ready to return to the classroom. The congregation subsequently offered to pay a portion of Perich’s health insurance premiums in exchange for her resignation as a called teacher. Perich refused to resign. In February, Perich presented herself at the school and refused to leave until she received written documentation that she had reported to work. The principal later called Perich and told her that she would likely be fired. Perich responded that she had spoken with an attorney and intended to assert her legal rights. In a subsequent letter, the chairman of the school board advised Perich that the congregation would consider whether to rescind her call at its next meeting. As grounds for termination, the letter cited Perich’s “insubordination and disruptive behavior,” as well as the damage she had done to her “working relationship” with the school by “threatening to take legal action.” The congregation voted to rescind Perich’s call, and Hosanna-Tabor sent her a letter of termination.
Perich filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that her employment had been terminated in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The EEOC brought suit against Hosanna-Tabor, alleging that Perich had been fired in retaliation for threatening to file an ADA lawsuit. Invoking what is known as the “ministerial exception,” Hosanna-Tabor argued that the suit was barred by the First Amendment because the claims concerned the employment relationship between a religious institution and one of its ministers. The District Court agreed and granted summary judgment in Hosanna-Tabor’s favor. The Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision and recognized the existence of a ministerial exception rooted in the First Amendment, but concluded that Perich did not qualify as a “minister” under the exception.
Supreme Court’s Decision and Significance to Religious Employers
Court’s around the country widely accept the ministerial exception as a bar to employment discrimination suits by ministers. However, not all courts agree on who qualifies as a minister. The Supreme Court found that Perich was a minister, although not in the conventional sense of the word. However, the Court did not establish a bright-line test for who qualifies as a minister and, instead, indicated that a case-by-case approach must be used which looks at the totality of circumstances surrounding the individual’s employment. While it is clear from this case that the ministerial exception applies to ministers, it does not apply to suits by other lay employees. Accordingly, religious employers must carefully analyze whether an employee qualifies as a minister before thinking that the ministerial exception will provide it with an absolute defense to any discrimination claims.
(1) Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.