What Employers Need to Know as the Supreme Court Expands the “Ministerial Exemption” for Religious Institutions
On July 8, 2020 in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision held that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) generally do not limit religious organizations’ employment decisions because of the “ministerial exemption.” In 2012, the Court created this exemption in a Title VII case. The Court reiterated its holding: The First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions “to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” “Under this rule, courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those furthering the religious mission of churches and other religious institutions.”
The Court had two cases before it. One case involved a teacher at a Catholic school whose contract was not renewed after telling the school administrator she was diagnosed with cancer. In the second case, a Catholic school teacher claimed her contract was not renewed because of her age. Both claimed discrimination in the non-renewals.
Both teachers were required to teach religion, pray with their students, teach catechism, etc. for about three hours a week, in addition to teaching secular subjects. The Court held that their duties [“There is abundant record evidence that they both performed vital religious duties.”] were entwined with the Church’s religious mission and held that under the First Amendment, the government (EEOC) could not enforce the ADA or ADEA. The Court did not create a bright line rule as to what would give rise to the exemption. They stated: “What matters….. is what an employee does.” They decided that “…courts [will] take all relevant circumstances into account and [will] determine whether each particular position implicated the fundamental purpose of the exception.”
What does this mean for the religious employer i.e. religious schools, churches, synagogues, temples and other houses of faith? The Courts will not interfere with your employment decisions with employees who have religious duties and perform duties consistent with your faith. This does not necessarily mean that a receptionist, a lay teacher or any specific employee falls under the exemption. Each case will be reviewed on what the employee actually does, not their title or education. Therefore, all religious based employers who want some or all of their staff to be exempt from discrimination laws must at a minimum clearly spell out the employee’s religious duties and obligations. At a minimum this should be done in the job description.