Ministerial Exception

Contributed by Larry Smith

Three recent actions by the U.S. Supreme Court have essentially approved the application of the “ministerial exception” rule barring various types of claims being filed against religious entities based upon an alleged discriminatory practice.  In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, U.S. no. 10-553, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a lower court ruling barring a Lutheran school teacher’s retaliatory discharge claim under the ADA.  A few days later, after the January 11th ruling in Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court denied two petitions to review lower court rulings that also upheld the ministerial exception from discrimination claims filed by former employees. 

First, Skrzypczak v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, involved a petition for leave to appeal a decision made by the 10th Circuit that affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendant on federal sex, age, and pay bias claims.  The second petition involved an appeal from the Michigan Court of Appeals in Weishuhn v. Catholic Diocese of Lansing.  In Weishuhn, a teacher brought bias and whistleblower claims against the defendant Diocese.  The lower court ruled that because the teacher was involved in incorporating religious teachings into her classes and helped to plan religious activities, the ministerial exception applied and her claims were barred.

The Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor referred to The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment as the basis for the decision.  The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The Supreme Court also mentioned that the courts of appeals have consistently recognized a “ministerial exception” based upon First Amendment principles.  However, there is still a question in each case presented as to whether the individual making the claim can be classified as a “minister.”

Going forward, the test will be whether the individual presenting a claim is deemed to be performing a “ministerial” function. Determining whether a janitor fits the ministerial exception, which has typically been reserved for religion teachers, may be easy, but a history teacher or gym teacher may not so easily be classified as performing a “ministerial” function. Relying upon carved out “exceptions” poses risks.  Be careful in your employment decision process as always and carefully examine whether the “ministerial exception” truly applies to the claim being presented.