In a rare unanimous decision, the Supreme Court endorsed a broad “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, holding that the First Amendment protects institutions that hire and fire clergy from having to comply with those discrimination laws.
The decision is also notable since it is the first major church-state rulings since a 1990 case involving a Native American church ritual of smoking peyote. In that case the Court allowed the government to apply “neutral and general” laws to some religious practices, but in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chief Justice Roberts said that test did not apply here.
The ruling ends a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Cindy Perich, a teacher and “commissioned minister” at a Lutheran school in Michigan. Perich alleged she was fired in retaliation for threatening to file a lawsuit under the Americans With Disability Act. Perich had been diagnosed with narcolepsy and was disputing proposed accommodations by the school. School officials argued they fired Perich because she failed to follow internal dispute resolution protocols and for insubordination.
The EEOC had argued that the “ministerial exception” should apply solely to workers who perform “exclusively religious functions,” a position Roberts dismissed as “extreme.” Instead, the Court opted for a series of factors to consider for courts to consider when judging whether a given denomination has proved its claim to the exception, including formal ordination and whether the claimant performed “important religious functions.
Roberts’ opinion traced the constitutional history of allowing religious organizations the independent right to control their own internal affairs, concluding that it is “impermissible for the government to contradict who can act as its ministers.”
The decision all but takes away the ability of church employees who act as ministers to their denominations from enforcing non-discrimination laws against their employer. As soon as the religious denomination identifies a particular employee as a “minister”, within a definition unique to each denomination, they likely envelope their organization in a shield of immunity from suit.
And minister can mean anyone from an actual congregation leader to any worker the organization considers to be advancing its religious mission. While there is certainly a constitutional imperative to protect the free exercise rights of all citizens, this decision appears to endorse a belief that religious workplaces religious rights trump the rights of individuals to be free from employment discrimination.
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