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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How Will Your House of Worship Utilize the SCOTUS Ministerial Exception?

Who among them can be fired?
Earlier this month, SCOTUS issued a unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Evangelical Church vs EEOC.  The case holds that a church receives freedom of religion protection under the First Amendment when it comes to employment termination decisions.

This case came about because the school, located right here in Wayne County, MI, fired one of the school's "called", or vocational teachers.  The church utilized both lay teachers, and vocational teachers; the latter being formally ordained by the church congregation and equipped with a "diploma of vocation".

Cheryl Perich started out at the school as a lay teacher, then earned her diploma and was commissioned as a "called" teacher in 1999.  Her problems with teaching at the school began at the start of the 2004 school year when she was diagnosed with severe narcolepsy (sudden deep sleeps from which a person cannot be roused) and placed on disability.

When Ms. Perich attempted to return to school with medical clearance, she was fired.  She filed a claim with the EEOC alleging her firing violated the Americans with Disability Act.  The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan agreed with the church school that the so-called "ministerial exception" to our employment laws applied; summary judgment was granted.

On her appeal to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the lower court was reversed and instructed to allow Ms. Perich to present her claims that the firing had been retaliatory.

This case was one of the first to be argued before SCOTUS last fall.  Due to the unclear scope of the "ministerial exception", the case received much attention from the legal media and court watchers.

In its decision, SCOTUS ruled that the doors of the courthouse were essentially closed to ministers claiming violation of state or federal workplace discrimination laws.  The decision is now being touted as the most significant church-state ruling from SCOTUS since its 1990 decision affirming a general government prohibition of spiritual peyote smoking by Native American Indians.

The EEOC urged the High Court to limit the application of the "ministerial exception" to employees who functioned in an "exclusively religious function" (i.e. not teachers).  SCOTUS refused to take the bait, with Chief Justice John Roberts, the author of the opinion, characterizing the government's plea as an extreme position.

So now, the line remains unclear.  SCOTUS did not precisely define how far into the church's employee roster the exception goes.

Nevertheless, the Court's decision pointed to significant factors in holding that the exception applied in this case: Ms. Perich was ordained by the church; that she performed "important religious functions" in addition to her mostly secular teaching duties; that she taught a religion class 4-days per week, etc.

Critics of the decision wonder why only the employment discrimination laws do not apply to religious employees of a house of worship.  For example, if a senior minister conducts a campaign of sexual workplace harassment upon a junior pastor, does this decision now bar the junior pastor's claims?

No doubt, there will be more cases in the future that will require the courts to define this exception with more precision.

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