Supreme Court Will Determine Breadth of Ministerial Exception to Discrimination

Supreme Court Will Determine Breadth of Ministerial Exception to Discrimination

The Supreme Court has decided to hear a case involving the extent to which religious employers are free from the laws forbidding discrimination.  In a number of cases, charges of religious discrimination have failed where an employee’s duties have been held to be central to the church’s mission.  For example, preachers have been unable to ask a court to put them back in their jobs.  Other church employees, such as chaplains and directors of church choirs, cannot seek redress in the courts if their duties are too directly linked to the church’s teachings, because then the courts of the United States would get too entangled in religion, in violation of the First Amendment.  Teachers in religious schools, however, often are permitted to sue, since their primary duties relate to non-religious subjects.

In the new case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, an elementary school teacher was fired after she took leave under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Upon her attempted return, the school decided that she may not be ready, and reqeusted her resignation. She refused to resign, as instructed, and threatened to sue. She and the EEOC claimed her termination was illegal retaliation; the employer stated it was her insubordination, which violated church doctrine. The teacher contends that her job did not involve any pastoral or missionary duties, and her religious teaching duties were minor compared with the rest of her job. Importantly, the job she did was not required to be held by a Lutheran.   In the Fourth Circuit, the court long ago decided that churches’ “t]heir employment decisions may be subject to Title VII scrutiny, where the decision does not involve the church’s spiritual functions.”  Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164, 1171 (4th Cir. 1985)

It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court draws a line between the kinds of discrimination alleged in deciding when to offer insulation to a church.  Contrast these two situations:  a religious teacher complains about sex discrimination because she had a baby out of wedlock, contrary to church teachings.  A church organist is told he is too old to do the job anymore.  In the first case, it makes sense for the court to stay out of the way.  In the second case, it makes less sense to link age discrimination with a church’s right to determine its own doctrine.

This case will not be decided before the Court breaks in June for summer hiatus.

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