Supreme Court Ruling Protects Religious Organizations from Employment Discrimination Claims

Jeffrey R. Schmitt

By Jeffrey R. Schmitt

On Wednesday, January 11, 2012, the United States Supreme Court granted victory to religious organizations across the nation by confirming that their First Amendment freedoms insulate churches and schools from certain employment discrimination claims. Some will consider this a landmark decision, and it may be the Court’s most significant church-state ruling in decades. The decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC confirmed churches’ and schools’ autonomy to make decisions about whom to hire and fire, when those employees have job duties related to the ministry of the organization.

The Court ruled against an elementary school teacher in her employment discrimination claim against Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, of Redford, Michigan, holding that the First Amendment protects the school from the reach of anti-discrimination laws, when the claims involve certain employees. The ruling was in line with many lower federal court rulings, but the issue had not previously been presented to the United States Supreme Court.

In the decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court confirmed the “ministerial exception” to certain anti-discrimination laws, concluding that the courts could not force the school to reinstate the teacher, Cheryl Perich. Perich claimed she was fired because she pursued a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, alleging she suffered from narcolepsy.

While the Supreme Court confirmed the ministerial exception for religious organizations, such as churches and schools, it did not provide a strict test for determining exactly who was considered a “minister” for purposes of the exception. However, the Court’s ruling is clear that the exception applies to a class of employees broader than merely clergy. Perich was an educator, and was responsible for teaching secular courses, in addition to religion class, and she attended chapel with students. However, she had formal religious training and had recently been designated as a “called” teacher of the school, as opposed to a lay or contract employee. Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion is clear that her duties with respect to religious instruction at the school were sufficient for her to fall under the umbrella of the ministerial exception. The Court was further not persuaded that the small amount of time spent by the teacher teaching religion class during her work day was a significant factor, stating “the issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved with a stopwatch.”

The ruling was a unanimous decision of the Court, and while the primary opinion did not propose a test for determining which employees qualify for the exception, the two concurring opinions, one written by Justice Clarence Thomas, and the other by Justices Samuel Alito, Jr. and Elena Kagan, did, although the concurrences differed on the methods of determining the status of employees, largely leaving the test for this determination up to the lower courts to determine on a case-by-case basis.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is generally in line with other church-state doctrines through which courts are reluctant to interfere with the internal operations of religions organizations. Many states, including Missouri, allow churches and parochial schools to discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring employees, so that the organizations are free to prefer job candidates whose religious beliefs are in line with that of the organization. Courts also often refuse to interfere with decisions regarding the ecclesiastical matters of religious organizations, meaning judges generally will not decide cases involving disputes over theology or religious practices within a particular organization.

Posted by Attorney Jeffrey R. Schmitt. Schmitt practices in commercial litigation including banking, real estate, construction, and other matters for individuals and businesses.

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