In a unanimous but cabined decision, the Supreme Court today in Hosanna Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC upheld what is known as the "ministerial exception" to laws against employment discrimination. The case involved a teacher in a religious school, the bulk of whose time was spent in secular instruction. The Court identified several factors for determining whether an employee qualified as a "minister," but eschewed any "rigid test." Nonetheless, it reversed a Court of Appeals decision from the Sixth Circuit which had found that the individual did not qualify for the exception.
Closing the courthouse door much of the way, but not completely, to workplace bias lawsuits by church employees who act as ministers to their denominations, the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously gave its blessing — for the first time — to a “ministerial exception” to federal, state and local laws against virtually all forms of discrimination on the job. The Court’s ruling, which only Justice Clarence Thomas said did not go far enough, did not order courts to throw out all such lawsuits as beyond their jurisdiction, but it left them with only a narrow inquiry before the likely order of dismissal would come down. As soon as the denomination makes its point that it counts an employee as a “minister,” within its internal definition, that is probably the end of the case. And the employee could be anyone from the congregational leader, on down to any worker considered to be advancing the religious mission.
The main opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, ... dismissed as an “extreme position” the plea of EEOC to limit any “ministerial exception” solely to workers who perform “exclusively religious functions.” While the opinion said the Court was “reluctant to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister,” the opinion went on to describe some key factors that courts are to take into account in judging whether a given denomination has proved its claim to the exception.
In this particular case, involving a parochial school teacher in Redford, Mich., who spent most of her work time on non-religious duties, the Court found these to be decisive factors: that she was formally commissioned as a “minister” in the Lutheran denomination’s internal practices, that she did perform “important religious functions” in addition to her teaching of lay subjects in the classroom, and that her non-religious duties, however extensive, did not make a difference. The Chief Justice said the Court was unsure whether any church employee would ever do exclusively religious chores.
...The Roberts opinion, with the support of eight members of the Court overall, said in a final footnote that is likely to take on added significance that the “ministerial exception” was not “a jurisdictional bar” to all such lawsuits claiming workplace bias. Rather, the Chief Justice explained, it is “a defense on the merits.” Thus, such lawsuits can be filed, and the worker who is suing will make a claim that he or she is the victim of discrimination, and then the denomination gets to answer that the case cannot go further because it considers the employee to be a “minister.”
The footnote concluded: “District courts have power to consider [such] claims in cases of this sort, and to decide whether the claim can proceed or is instead barred by the ministerial exception.”...