Understanding the Ministerial Exemption for Religious Schools

The Ministerial Exception allows religious institutions to employ and fire their choice of ministers without being subjected to anti-discriminatory laws.

The Ministerial Exception allows religious institutions to employ and fire their choice of ministers without being subjected to anti-discriminatory laws. 

This clause means that ministers of religious schools cannot sue the institution if they are fired, even if they think they were discriminated against due to their age, sex, race, religion, disability, or orientation.

The Free Exercise Clause

The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution contains the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause that protect the rights to practice religion and prevents the government from interfering with religious practice. 

The protection extends to religious institutions, which are free to practice and run their establishments according to their religious requirements and mission statements.

The Ministerial Exception in the Hosanna-Tabor Case

The Ministerial Exception was first seen in the Supreme Court in 2012 with the court case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC

Cheryl Perich, a teacher in a religious school, went on disability leave for a medical condition, and the school hired a replacement teacher. After Perich was medically cleared to return to work, the school would not give her back her job.  

Although Perich tried to sue the school for firing her unreasonably, the Supreme Court unanimously found that the religious institution was protected under the first amendment, which holds that the government can not determine whom the religious school could hire. 

As per the court’s ruling, “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision… By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”

Who is a Minister?

The Ministerial Exception applies to ministers of religious institutions, but what qualifies an employee as a minister? Can all employees of a religious school be discriminated against with impunity? 

In the 2019 case of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey Berru, two teachers of the Catholic school sued the school for discrimination. They charged the school for dismissing them due to a medical condition and age, which violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.  

The school defended itself by claiming that because the teachers taught religious classes and participated in the school’s religious functions, it was protected under the Ministerial Exception. The court agreed, and the school did not have to rehire the teachers. Based on the school’s mission statement and the employee’s contracts, it was clear that the teachers were expected to serve in some religious capacity.

The case set a precedent that it’s the job duties and functions served that determine whether an employee is a minister, not the employee’s title, position, education, or ordination. 

Employee Concerns

What does the Ministerial Exception mean for employees of religious institutions? Are they not protected at all under the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity?  Can they be discriminated against by race, age, and disability? It’s a fine line between protecting the religious freedom of the school and protecting the rights of the employees. 

The dissenting justices in the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe School warned religious institutions not to “discriminate widely and with impunity for reasons wholly divorced from religious beliefs.”

To Summarize

The Ministerial Exception laws prohibit the government from getting involved in the employment of ministers in religious schools and institutions. Ministers refer to any employee who serves or participates in the institution’s religious practices. 

Whether the term minister and the school’s protection is too broad remains to be seen.