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Supreme Court Focuses on Job Duties, Contracts in Applying “Ministerial Exception” to Teachers at Religious Schools

Posted July 13th, 2020 by in Employment Discrimination.

The Supreme Court recently decided two cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel, both on appeal from the Ninth Circuit, that clarified the scope of the so-called “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws. According to the Court, under that exception, “courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.” See Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, 591 U.S. __, 11 (2020). The Court first recognized the ministerial exception by that name in its 2012 decision Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. Although the exception is judicially-created and not enumerated in federal anti-discrimination statutes, the Court in Hosanna-Tabor drew upon historical context surrounding church-state relations in the United States, earlier Supreme Court decisions declining to intervene in internal religious disputes involving church property and/or leadership, and decisions by lower courts recognizing such an exception.

In Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. James, the Court held that the ministerial exception applied to elementary school teachers at two Catholic schools in Southern California who alleged they were fired because of their age (Morrissey-Berru) or disability (Biel). In both cases, the Ninth Circuit had reversed decisions by lower courts that had granted summary judgment in favor of the schools on the basis of the ministerial exception. In reversing those decisions, the Supreme Court found the Ninth Circuit erred in insisting that all four of the “relevant circumstances” identified in Hosanna-Tabor—namely, the employee’s title, formal religious education, whether the employee holds themselves out publicly as a minister, and whether the employee performed a religious function—be formally weighed when determining whether the ministerial exception applied.

Instead, the Court, in a majority opinion written by Justice Alito, emphasized that what an employee does is most determinative of whether that employee would fall within the ministerial exception. See 591 U.S. at 18 (“What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.”). Thus, to determine whether an employee is carrying out “vital religious duties,” courts may look to an employee’s job discrimination, employment agreement with the employer, the employer’s employee handbook and evaluation criteria, as well as the employee’s own account of her responsibilities. In the cases at hand, for instance, the Court found that teaching religion, even when it was done in addition to teaching secular subjects, was sufficient for summary judgment on the employees’ claims where plaintiffs did not have much formal religious training or a title beyond “teacher,” two factors that could have set this case apart from the facts in Hosanna-Tabor.

In dissent, Justice Sotomayor raised concerns that the Court’s decision will extend the exception much farther than Hosanna-Tabor (a unanimous decision), since emphasizing job duties could mean that the “rights of countless coaches, camp counselors, nurses, social-service workers, in-house lawyers, media-relations personnel, and many others who work for religious institutions” could fall within the ministerial exception in the future. See 591 U.S. __, 20 (Sotomayor, J. dissenting). The dissent expressed similar concern about the Court’s determination that the exception could apply even to employees who did not share the same religion as her religious employer. Id. at 19.

While the scope of the impact of the Court’s rulings in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel remain to be seen, employees of religious institutions should be aware that their job duties, as reflected in their day-to-day activities and employment agreements, will likely be relevant in determining whether their rights will be protected in court. Of course, the facts of each case may vary and anyone who believes they may have been subject to discrimination in the workplace by a religious employer should consult an attorney regarding any potential claims.

Whittney Barth is an Associate in the Baltimore office of Sanford Heisler Sharp. She received her M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School in 2011 and a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School in 2019.
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