Religious Institutions and Employment Discrimination « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles

Religious Institutions and Employment Discrimination

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Ministers May Not Sue

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued its first decision on the “ministerial exception” to workplace discrimination laws, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (January 11, 2012).  In a unanimous ruling, the Court found that while certain laws authorize workers to sue their employers for employment discrimination seeking reinstatement and damages, the constitutional protections for religious free exercise and from excessive state intrusion into church affairs bar such suits “when the employer is a religious group and the employee is one of the group’s ministers.”

“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. “But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”

After completing training that included a course in theology, Cheryl Perich accepted the Hosanna-Tabor Church and School’s invitation to teach fourth grade as a   “commissioned minister” of the Lutheran faith.  Ms. Perich taught secular subjects as well as a religion class. She also lead her students in daily prayer and took them to a weekly school-wide chapel service.

Ms. Perich had to take a long leave of absence at the beginning of the 2004-05 school year to address a narcolepsy condition.  When Ms. Perich notified the school a few months later that she was ready to return to work, the principal responded that the school had already filled her position with a lay teacher for the remainder of the academic term.

She refused the school’s offer to pay her additional benefits if she resigned.  As the relationship degenerated with Ms. Perich threatening suit, the school fired her for insubordination and disruptive behavior.   Ms. Perich filed a charge of disability discrimination with the EEOC.  The EEOC then sued Hosanna-Tabor for alleged retaliation against Ms. Perich for her threatening to file suit.

The church responded that Ms. Perish was subject to the “ministerial exception” and thus prevented from suing for supposed violation of the anti-employment discrimination laws.  The Supreme Court has now agreed, holding the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses immunized the church from such a suit brought by one of its ministers.  This was true, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, even though “her religious duties consumed only 45 minutes of each workday and … the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects.”

The Court observed that the EEOC and Ms. Perich foresaw “a parade of horribles” that would follow upholding the ministerial recognition, including protecting churches from suits for retaliation against priests who report child abuse or other criminal misconduct.  However, the Court emphasized it was only ruling that the ministerial exception barred an employment discrimination claim brought by or on behalf of a minister.  “We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits…”

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