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July 15, 2020Client Alert

SCOTUS Endorses Broad Exception from Employment-Discrimination Suits for Religious Employers

In a sizeable victory for religious employers, last week the U.S. Supreme Court held that judicial intervention in employment decisions made by religious schools concerning teachers whose duties include religious instruction violates the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses. Justice Samuel Alito, on behalf of a 7-2 majority, concluded that the “ministerial exception,” a judicial doctrine adopted by the Court in 2012, bars secular courts from adjudicating employment-discrimination claims brought by teachers who perform “vital religious duties” against religious schools even if they are not “ministers” in the traditional sense.

What is the Ministerial Exception?

The ministerial exception is a powerful judicial doctrine prohibiting ministers from suing religious employers under anti-discrimination laws. The doctrine in U.S. legal jurisprudence is decades old, although the Supreme Court first recognized the ministerial exception in a 2012 case known as Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.

In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court held the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses foreclose certain employment discrimination claims brought against religious organizations. This so-called “ministerial exception” is grounded in the constitutional principles that religious institutions are independent in matters of “faith and doctrine” and “matters of church government,” requiring secular courts to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding important positions with religious organizations.

Hosanna-Tabor involved a “called” teacher who had completed religious training and whom her school considered a minister. The teacher alleged her school unlawfully terminated her based on her disability, narcolepsy. A unanimous Court ruled the ministerial exception barred her disability discrimination claim, though it declined to articulate a “rigid formula” for lower courts to apply. Instead, the Court focused its analysis on four case-specific circumstances relevant to the nature of the teacher’s employment: the school called her a “minister;” the teacher held herself out as a minister; the teacher had completed religious education; and her job duties reflected a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.

The Court Clarifies When the Ministerial Exception Applies

The case the Court decided last week, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, featured consolidated cases involving teachers at separate Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. These cases differed significantly from the minister-teacher’s employment circumstances in Hosanna-Tabor. Most prominently, the two new cases involved teachers without any formal religious training or titles but who, among other things, taught Catholic doctrine in their curriculums alongside secular subjects, and worshipped with students.

Both teachers brought discrimination claims against their employers (age and disability, respectively) and lost on summary judgment based on the ministerial exception. The Ninth Circuit reversed both decisions, holding the ministerial exception did not bar the employees from bringing their respective employment discrimination claims. In short, the Ninth Circuit reasoned the teachers at issue did not meet the four factors the Court evaluated in Hosanna-Tabor. The schools petitioned the Supreme Court to clarify when the ministerial exception bars courts from hearing employment-discrimination suits against religious employers.

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit in both cases, ruling the ministerial exception barred both suits because each teacher performed “vital religious functions.” In so holding, the Court rebuffed the Ninth Circuit for misinterpreting the Hosanna-Tabor decision, which the Court re-emphasized did not represent a “rigid formula.” Rather, it is what the employee does that matters, i.e., whether the employee performs vital religious functions. The title of “minister” is not a requirement for an employee to qualify for the ministerial exception, and the Court deemphasized the title’s importance. The Court, reasoning education is a vital religious function in many religious traditions, determined the ministerial exception applied to the teachers, both of whom taught and incorporated Catholic doctrine into their respective curriculums.

Takeaways for Religious Employers

There is no doubt Morrissey-Berru strengthens the ministerial exception and represents a substantial victory for religious schools. It now seems clear religious schools may take employment actions against teachers who instruct on religious doctrine for any religious or non-religious reason without fear of running afoul of anti-discrimination laws.

The Court’s decision will likely have far-reaching effects beyond religious schools. The now clarified ministerial exception should bar courts from hearing any employment-discrimination claims related to tangible employment actions by any employee of a religious employer who performs “vital religious functions” in the course of their employment. As Justice Alito wrote: “what matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.” Given this broad language, one could envision religious employers both inside and outside the education world possibly structuring and characterizing employees’ job duties as “vital religious functions” in order to assert the exception and stave off discrimination lawsuits.

Notably, last week’s decision comes on the heels of the Supreme Court recent ruling that employers cannot discriminate against LGBTQ workers under federal employment law. Please refer to Michael Best’s complete analysis of this important decision. Morrissey-Berru effectively limits that ruling in the case of employees who provide vital religious functions.

Bottom line: religious employers should still exercise caution in making employment decisions. Whether the ministerial exception applies remains case-specific. There is no bright line test for who qualifies as a “minister.” In Morrissey-Berru, there was evidence of both teachers performing religious functions, including worshipping with students, in addition to teaching Catholic doctrine. Thus, although it is likely a court will apply the ministerial exception in a case of a teacher who teaches a religious doctrine but performs no other religious functions, it remains prudent for religious employers to not make assumptions based on Morrissey-Berru. Rather, they should assess the facts of each particular situation before making any potentially liability-raising decisions.

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