Supreme Court Upholds Religious Exemptions From Discrimination Law

In a decision considered a victory for religious employers, the U.S. Supreme Court gave religious organizations broader ability to hire and fire employees without violating federal anti-discrimination laws. In the 7-2 decision, the court expanded the “ministerial exception” that precludes courts from hearing disputes brought by employees who have vital religious responsibilities, an exemption based on the First Amendment prohibition of government interference with religion.

In the case under appeal, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, two elementary school teachers at two Catholic schools filed discrimination suits — one for age and one for disability — after they were terminated. Neither teacher held the title of “minister” but both provided religious education. Their positions were evaluated on the basis of whether they infused Catholic values into their teaching and prayed with their students. The Ninth Circuit found that since the teachers lacked the title and credentials of a minister and neither held herself out as a religious leader, the ministerial exception did not apply and the discrimination suits could proceed.

The Supreme Court disagreed, focusing on the teachers’ actual duties rather than their titles. Despite not being ministers in name, they guided their students to live in accordance with their faith, took religious education courses at the request of their schools, and played a vital role in furthering the mission of the church. Even though the teachers did not consider themselves ministers, the Court said, they fit within the ministerial exception and thus could not file discrimination claims.

The decision indicates that individuals involved in almost any kind of religious instruction for churches and religious institutions are considered ministers of the faith, regardless of their official title or their personal adherence to the faith. In this case, one of the teachers was not, in her words, a “practicing Catholic.”

The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., asserts that “religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools” and thus the role of teachers is essential to that mission. “Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

Alito went on to say that the decision does not imply a broad exemption from law. “This [decision] does not mean that religious institutions enjoy a general immunity from secular laws, but it does protect their autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission,” he wrote. “And a component of this autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying that the decision gives religious employers freedom to discriminate. Sotomayor wrote that the ruling “strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections. It gives an employer free rein to discriminate because of race, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, or other traits protected by law when selecting of firing their ‘ministers,’ even when the discrimination is wholly unrelated to the employer’s religious beliefs or practices. That is, an employer need not cite or possess a religious reason at all; the ministerial exception even condones animus.”

Based on the decision, religious employers should take certain steps to take advantage of the broadened ministerial exception:

  • In employee handbooks and job descriptions, include clear statements of the employer’s religious mission and the employees’ role in the mission, and maintain written acknowledgements of those statements from each employee.
  • Include clear statements of the employee’s religious mission and the employee’s role in the mission in all employment agreements signed by employees.
  • Conduct dedicated and documented employee training in the employer’s religious mission and the employee’s role.
  • Document employee performance in the context of religious standards.

By clearly stating that employees play a vital role in the religious mission of the employer, many discrimination claims will be avoided. As with any significant employment decision, especially those resulting from judicial proceedings, be sure to consult your employment attorney for guidance. We are happy to help.


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