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Supreme Court of the United States to Hear "Ministerial Exception" Case

April 8th, 2011 | Ross Runkel

Ross_Runkel_aMarch 28, 2011, the US Supreme Court granted certiorari in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC to decide whether the “ministerial exception” applies to teacher at a religious elementary school.

[Details, briefs]

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the employer, asserting a retaliation claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The trial court dismissed the claim, based on the “ministerial exception” to the ADA. The 6th Circuit vacated the trial court’s dismissal.

The ministerial exception is codified in the ADA (42 USC Section 12113(d)), but it is rooted in the 1st Amendment and has been applied to Title VII and other employment discrimination statutes. The EEOC’s claim arose from the discharge of a teacher from a sectarian school, and the primary issue on appeal was whether the teacher was a “ministerial” employee subject to the ministerial exception. The 6th Circuit noted that “[t]he question of whether a teacher at a sectarian school classifies as a ministerial employee is one of first impression for this Court.”

The 6th Circuit observed that “the overwhelming majority of courts that have considered the issue have held that parochial school teachers … who teach primarily secular subjects do not classify as ministerial employees for purposes of the exception.” The 6th Circuit also observed that “when courts have found that teachers classify as ministerial employees for purposes of the exception, those teachers have generally taught primarily religious subjects or had a central role in the spiritual or pastoral mission of the church.” Applying those standards, the court concluded that the teacher at issue did not fall within the scope of the ministerial exception. The court noted that the teacher taught secular subjects, and spent only forty-five minutes out of her seven hour workday on religious-oriented activities. The court reasoned, “[t]he fact that [the teacher] participated in and led some religious activities throughout the day does not make her primary function religious.”

The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the 6th Circuit judgment.

Question presented in petition for certiorari:

The federal courts of appeals have long recognized the “ministerial exception,” a First Amendment doctrine that bars most employment-related lawsuits brought against religious organizations by employees performing religious functions. The circuits are in complete agreement about the core applications of this doctrine to pastors, priests, and rabbis. But they are evenly divided over the boundaries of the ministerial exception when applied to other employees. The question presented is:Whether the ministerial exception applies to a teacher at a religious elementary school who teaches the full secular curriculum, but also teaches daily religion classes, is a commissioned minister, and regularly leads students in prayer and worship.

About the Author: Ross Runkel is founder of LawMemo, is Professor of Law Emeritus at Willamette University College of Law. He has spent 35 years specializing in employment law, employment discrimination, labor law, and arbitration.

This blog originally appeared in LawMemo.com on March 28, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

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