In a new ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed and strengthened its prior decision regarding a religious employer’s exemption to various employment claims. In a 7-2 decision, the Court in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru held that two former religious school teachers were unable to bring their employment discrimination claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Court reasoned that the separation of church and state under the First Amendment applied such that courts could not intervene in a religious school’s employment decisions. The Court held that the First Amendment “protects the right of religious institutions to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.”
This is not a wholly new doctrine from the Court. Previously, the Court applied this “ministerial exception” when it determined in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v EEOC that an elementary school teacher who held the role of “Minister of Religion, Commissioned” was barred from bringing an employment discrimination claim. In that case, the Court reasoned then that the former teacher 1) held the title of minister; 2) held a position that reflected a significant degree of religious training; 3) presented herself as a minister of the church and claimed certain tax benefits; and 4) had job duties that reflected a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission.
When Morrissey-Berru and its sister case, St. James School v Darryl Biel, were before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the court emphasized that the teachers were not given the title of “minister” and had less religious training than the plaintiff in Hosanna-Tabor. The Supreme Court disagreed with this reasoning, instead emphasizing the importance of the religious schools’ ability to provide religious education and formation of their students – with educators performing a vital role in that process.
The Court also relied on the teachers’ written agreements and the schools’ faculty handbooks. Both described a mission and goal for the institution to develop and promote the faith community and set requirements regarding the teachers’ instruction and personal modeling of the faith. For these reasons, the Court determined that the employees need not be “ministers” in a strict sense for the “ministerial exception” to apply. A deeper analysis of an employee’s role and function within an religious organization is necessary.
As a result of the Court’s decision, religious organizations are on stronger footing when asking courts to dismiss employment discrimination claims based on the “ministerial exception.” Religious groups should evaluate their employment agreements, handbooks, and other written documentation to ensure they reflect the group’s mission and values.
If you need assistance with this process or have questions or concerns regarding the case, please contact any of our employment law attorneys.