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9-0 SCOTUS: Religion and Anti-Discrimination Employment Laws Don’t Mix

Posted: January 11, 2012 Filed under: Case Law, Employment Law

The United States Supreme Court issued three rulings today. In one of the more highly anticipated opinions, the justices unanimously agreed in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC that the First Amendment’s freedom of religion provisions encompass a “ministerial exception” to some anti-discrimination employment laws. Hosanna-Tabor involved a fourth grade teacher diagnosed with narcolepsy but cleared to work. Instead of returning the teacher to the classroom, the Lutheran school that employed her severed her employment. The teacher filed a claim with the EEOC under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The church school maintained that it could not be sued under federal employment laws because the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution shielded it from liability. The teacher argued her job was primarily secular in nature, as evidenced by the fact she was engaged in religious instruction only 45 minutes of the school day.

Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the Court’s majority opinion, said the amount of time devoted to religious activities may be a consideration, but that the answer is not controlled by a stopwatch. Facts of significance to the outcome in Hosanna-Tabor were that the teacher had extensive religious training, had been formally commissioned, and was held out by the church as a minister. Thus, the “ministerial exception” is not necessarily limited to those at the head of a church or congregation. “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the [First Amendment’s] Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers,” wrote the Chief Justice.

The opinion does not speak to all kinds of lawsuits, such as those involving claims for personal injuries, breach of contract, payment of wages, to name a few.

Justice Alito wrote a separate opinion and was joined by Justice Kagan. They emphasized the ministerial exception does not depend on the word “minister,” a concept that does not exist in some religions. Rather, the concurring justices said:

The First Amendment protects the freedom of religious groups to engage in certain key religious activities, including the conducting of worship services and other religiousceremonies and rituals, as well as the critical process of communicating the faith. Accordingly, religious groups must be free to choose the personnel who are essential tothe performance of these functions.

The “ministerial” exception should be tailored to this purpose. It should apply to any “employee” who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.

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