Supreme Court Expands Boundaries of Ministerial Exception


This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court held that parochial school teachers may not bring claims against their employers under federal employment discrimination laws, including Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The “ministerial exception,” grounded in the First Amendment and first recognized by the Supreme Court in 2012, precludes the application of certain federal employment discrimination laws to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers. In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., the Court held that a religious school teacher could not bring an ADA claim against her employer, finding that the ministerial exception “ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful - a matter strictly ecclesiastical - is the church's alone.”

During its 2020 term, the Supreme Court heard Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the consolidation of two cases involving Catholic elementary school teachers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. As in the 2012 case, the facts of each case involved a teacher who alleged she had been terminated in violation of federal employment laws, specifically the ADEA and ADA.

The Morrissey-Berru holding expanded the bounds of the ministerial exception, applying the exception to “lay” teachers without any religious education credentials, whereas the Court’s prior holding in Hosanna-Tabor involved a teacher with extensive religious training who had been given the title of “minister.” According to Justice Alito, the author of the majority opinion in Morrissey-Berru, the ministerial exception applies to those employees who perform “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.”

Although the two opinions involving the ministerial exception promulgated by the Supreme Court to date have both involved teachers, the Morrissey-Berru holding would seemingly apply to any employee whose duties were “vital” to the religious institution’s mission. Justice Thomas, in his concurring opinion, emphasized that “what qualifies as ‘ministerial’ is an inherently theological question, and thus one that cannot be resolved by civil courts through legal analysis.”  Justice Sotomayor, in her dissenting opinion, concluded that the Court’s holding expanded the ministerial exception to “coaches, camp counselors, nurses, social-service workers, in-house lawyers, media-relations personnel, and many others who work for religious institutions.”

The Morrissey-Berru case strengthens the autonomy of religious institutions with respect to “internal management decisions that are essential to the institution's central mission.” It is important to note, however, that the holdings in Hosanna-Tabor and Morrissey-Berru are limited to federal employment discrimination claims. Prior Supreme Court precedence holds that religious institutions must comply with other federal employment laws, including but not limited to the Fair Labor Standard Act.

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