- Individuals teaching religion at religious schools are "ministers" and therefore not protected by federal nondiscrimination laws, the U.S. Supreme Court held July 8 in a 7-2 vote (Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267 (U.S. July 8, 2020)).
- The Court reached that decision in reviewing the employment discrimination claims of two teachers working at Roman Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. One alleged the school failed to renew her contract because of her age; the other alleged she was fired for requesting leave for breast cancer treatment. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the ministerial exception applied in neither case. It said the first teacher did not have the formal title of "minister," had limited formal religious training and did not hold herself out publicly as a religious leader; the second lacked relevant credentials, religious training and ministerial background.
- The Supreme Court reversed both rulings, explaining that "courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions." Among other factors, the "ministerial exception" to nondiscrimination coverage that the Court adopted in 2012 does not have a "rigid formula" for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister and "[t]here is abundant record evidence that they both performed vital religious duties, such as educating their students in the Catholic faith and guiding their students to live their lives in accordance with that faith." Moreover, "their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital role in carrying out the church’s mission. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of its employees in the life of the religion in question is important."
The Supreme Court created the "ministerial exception" in 2012 in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, ruling that the First Amendment permits religious organizations to choose their ministers, without regard to federal nondiscrimination laws.
But in the two most recent cases, the 9th Circuit incorrectly applied the circumstances in Hosanna-Tabor as a checklist. And that "rigid test produced a distorted analysis," the High Court said. Specifically, it assigned too much weight to the plaintiffs’ lack of a "minister" title and their less-formal religious schooling; it conversely placed too little weight on the significance of their duties. "And they go further astray in suggesting that an employee can never come within the Hosanna-Tabor exception unless the employee is a ‘practicing’ member of the religion with which the employer is associated. Deciding such questions risks judicial entanglement in religious issues."
The July 8 ruling came alongside another ruling in favor of religious employers. In a separate decision the same day, the Court determined that the Trump administration had the authority to issue rules expanding the ability of employers to claim moral or religious exemptions from the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate.