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Supreme Court Holds “Ministers” Cannot Bring Employment Discrimination Suits, But Who is a Minister?

Last week, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the First Amendment protects a religious institution’s autonomy to choose its ministers, placing these decisions beyond the reach of employment discrimination statutes.  The case, Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, involved a religious school teacher who spent most of her time teaching secular subjects, but also taught religious subjects and had been hired as a “called teacher,” someone called by God to teach.  She was asked to resign after taking a leave of absence due to narcolepsy, which she alleged violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Supreme Court for the first time explicitly recognized the “ministerial exception,” already in place in the circuit courts of appeal, which bars employment discrimination suits by ministers.  It does not bar all such lawsuits against religious institutions.  The difficult question in most of these cases is whether the employee is a “minister.”  It is clear that a member of the clergy hired to preach to a congregation is a minister and that the janitor is not.  In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court considered that the job title reflected someone who had been “called” by God, that the employee held herself out as a minister, and the religious functions she actually performed in her job.  The EEOC argued the employee was not a minister because she spent most of her day teaching secular subjects, but the Court rejected this argument, stating that the issue could not be “resolved by a stopwatch.”

While Hosanna-Tabor is a landmark case with far-reaching implications, religious institutions must take note of its limits.  First, it does not establish a clear test for who is or is not a minister.  Religious employers should not become complacent on an erroneous belief that all employment decisions are untouchable.  Consult with counsel before making employment decisions that rely on the proper classification of someone as a minister.  Second, the case explicitly applies only to employment discrimination suits, not all suits pertaining to employment.  The Court refrained from deciding whether the exception applies to other suits, such as breach of contract or tortious conduct.  Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on civil rights issues and employment litigation in general and for religious institutions.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.