Supreme Court Recognizes 'Ministerial Exception' to Employment-Discrimination Laws

By January 11, 2012

An interesting article from today’s Chronicle of Higher Education about the implications of a recent Supreme Court decision that formally recognized the “ministerial exception” as legal doctrine in employment discrimination lawsuits.
Read the full story here.
By Peter Schmidt
In a decision with major implications for church-affiliated colleges and their employees, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously held that the First Amendment precludes the application of federal employment-discrimination laws to religious institutions’ personnel decisions involving workers with religious duties.
Many federal appeals courts and state courts had previously declared that there exists a “ministerial exception” to employment-discrimination laws rooted in the First Amendment’s clauses protecting religious freedom. Wednesday’s ruling, however, is the first in which the Supreme Court formally recognized the “ministerial exception” as legal doctrine.
Although the case involved a lawsuit brought by a teacher who had been fired from a now-defunct religious elementary school, it was watched closely by many religious colleges, which had urged the court to safeguard their religious freedom, and advocates for the employees of such institutions, who had argued that a Supreme Court decision in favor of the school could leave colleges emboldened to cite the ministerial exception as a pretext for trampling their employees’ rights.
The Supreme Court majority’s opinion, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., made clear that the court was applying the ministerial exception only to employment-discrimination disputes. It said, “We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers. There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.”
On the question of whether the ministerial exception applied to discrimination lawsuits, however, the justices were emphatic in stating their view that interfering with a church’s ability to hire or fire those it regards as ministers violates two clauses of the First Amendment: its free-exercise clause, which, they said, “protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments,” and its establishment clause, which prohibits government involvement in such religious decisions.
Their opinion noted that the First Amendment’s authors had chafed against the English Crown’s involvement in America’s religious matters, and that the Supreme Court had touched upon religious organization’s freedom to choose their own ministers in cases involving attempts by the government to intervene in disputes over church property.
Three of the justices also signed on to separate, concurring opinions stretching the scope of the ministerial exception beyond the opinion of the majority, which based its decision heavily on its assessment of how much the teacher’s job duties could be considered religious.
Justice Clarence Thomas argued in one that the First Amendment’s religion clauses require the courts to defer to religious organization’s own decisions as to which employees they considered ministerial.
In the other, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Justice Elena Kagan joined in arguing that the courts, in determining which employees of religious institutions serve religious functions, should not fixate on the title “minister,” which is used only in some faiths.
Read more here.