Supreme Court Reaffirms and Clarifies Ministerial Exception to Employment Discrimination Laws Under First Amendment’s Religion Clause
By Kevin M. Mosher • Jul 10, 2020
On July 8, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in revisiting the “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws. In its decision, the Court held that, when considering whether a religious employer may claim the ministerial exception depends on all of the surrounding circumstances—not a rigid set of criteria.
What is a ministerial exception?
The ministerial exception is a judicial doctrine that excuses religious institutions from complying with employment discrimination laws. Basically, courts have found that requiring such compliance violates the Establishment Clause, and religious institutions shouldn’t be restricted in the criteria they consider when hiring people to serve as pastors, ministers, or in other ministerial or ecclesiastical positions.
What did the Supreme Court say about it now?
Back in 2012, the Supreme Court discussed certain criteria which may tend to indicate that an employee is serving in a ministerial capacity, such as the employee’s title, the employee’s academic and religious training and credentials, and the religious nature of the employee’s job duties. Now, the Supreme Court has clarified that courts should consider more than these particular factors and should instead look at all the relevant circumstances when determining whether the particular position implicated the fundamental purpose of the ministerial exception.
So, what happened in the case?
The Supreme Court’s most recent decision involved two Catholic school teachers who claimed they were discriminated against—one based on her age and the other based on her disability. The schools argued that the ministerial exception applied to them, and therefore the former teachers could not sue them under either the Age Discrimination in Employment Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even though the teachers did not have any formal religious training or credentials, the Court found that they were hired and approved to teach at their respective schools on the basis of the schools’ fundamental religious values and tenets, that they led the students in worship and were required to teach them the basic tenets of the Catholic faith, and that their performance was routinely evaluated and reviewed on the basis of the schools’ well-documented religious principles. Therefore, the Court found that the schools could rightfully claim the ministerial exception. Ultimately, it was not religious titles or academic credentials that informed the decision, rather the scope of work and the overarching religious instruction ingrained in the day-to-day affairs of even lay teachers.
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