Ministerial Exception protects Religious Employers from Discrimination Liability

Posted February 2012 in Religious Freedom by Sharon Lopez

Last month the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion making it clear that religious employers may assert a ministerial exception as an affirmative defense in discrimination cases.  The First Amendment protects religious organizations from interference in their employment decisions that affect ministerial positions.  The Supreme Court reached this opinion while considering a retaliation claim brought by a teacher in a religious school.  The teacher was fired following extended treatment for narcolepsy.  The school asserted they had the right to choose whether to terminate the teacher because she was a called teacher and therefore subject to the ministerial exception.  The Court reviewed the factors that supported the teacher’s position as a minister of the faith and concluded that because she was called to teach the faith as well as substantive educational material the school’s right to government non-interference was protected under the First Amendment.  The ministerial exception does not apply to all employees of religious employers and will turn on the conditions of employment and the role the employee plays in promoting the beliefs of the religious institution.  The opinion is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC and can be found at: http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/hosanna-tabor-evangelical-lutheran-church-and-school-v-eeoc/ 

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