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  • SCOTUS Addresses the Ministerial Exception in Its First Employment Decision of 2012

    Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U. S. ____ (2012)

    On January 11, 2012, in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Sixth Circuit’s ruling that the First Amendment does not bar employment discrimination suits brought on behalf of ministers against their religious employers.

    This case surrounds the termination of Cheryl Perich, a “called” teacher at Hosanna-Tabor, after she threatened to sue her employer, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School (the “Church”), under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  In 1999, Perich was hired as a “lay” — or “contract” — teacher, but soon met the academic requirements to become a “called” teacher, one who has been called to their vocation by God through a congregation. After four years of employment, Perich became ill and took disability leave. Halfway through the following school year, Perich notified her employer that she was ready to return, but the employer informed her that they had already hired a replacement and expressed concern regarding Perich’s ability to return to work.

    After multiple exchanges between the parties, Perich informed the Church that she had contacted a lawyer and was prepared to assert a claim under theADA. The Church subsequently terminated Perich because of this, claiming that violated a Lutheran religious tenet that members of the faith should resolve internally their disagreements. Perich then filed a charge with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the EEOC brought suit on her behalf.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the Church based on the ministerial exception, but the Sixth Circuit subsequently reversed on the ground that Perich was not a minister.

    On appeal, the Supreme Court looked at essentially two issues: (1) does the ministerial exception exist?; and (2) if it does, to whom does it apply? As to the first question, the Court provided a lengthy historical analysis of the controversy between church and state, starting with the Magna Carta and ultimately making its way to the First Amendment. Once there, the Court provided the following reason for its conclusion that a ministerial exception exists:

    We agree that there is such a ministerial exception. The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.  By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.

    As to the second issue, the Court left some ambiguity, but ultimately held that the individual in this particular case was a minister.  The Court noted that they are “reluctant to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.”  However, Chief Judge Roberts, writing for the Court, went on to describe some key factors that courts should consider, including the formal title given by the church, the substance reflected in that title, the process by which the individual earned that title, and the important religious functions the employee performed for the church. Applying these factors to the case at hand, the Court held that “given all the circumstances of her employment” Perich was a minister covered by the ministerial exception. Therefore, because Perich was a minister within the meaning of the exception, the First Amendment requires dismissal of the employment discrimination suit against her religious employer.

    Recognizing the potential discrepancies among lower courts when ruling on similar issues, the Court stressed that it was ruling only on an employment discrimination claim. Thus, the opinion should not be construed to address any other type of lawsuit by a church employee, including any breach of contract or “tortious conduct” against an employee by a religious employer claims.