Friday, January 13, 2012

Supreme Court adopts "ministerial exception" to civil rights laws

The Supreme Court had a choice. It could honor Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination and retaliation, or it could honor the First Amendment, which prohibits government interference in the management of religious institutions. The Court unanimously goes with the First Amendment, identifying for the first time a ministerial exception to Title VII which prevents courts from resolving certain lawsuits against religious organizations.

The case is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC, decided on January 11. The plaintiff taught at a school that offered Christian-centered education, but her responsibilities include certain ministerial functions. After a dispute with her superiors over whether she could work despite her disability (narcolepsy), she threatened to sue for retaliation under Title VII. The Supreme Court says she can't do it under the ministerial exception. (The Second Circuit in 2008 adopted this exception in Rweyemamu v. Cole, 520 F.3d 198 (2d Cir. 2008)).

The Supreme Court has never had a case like this before, so it looks to the original intent of the Establishment Clause by drawing from decisions made by James Madison when he was both Secretary of State and President. Madison said that the government cannot tell religious organizations how to run their internal affairs. Older Supreme Court cases also hint at this in the context of disputes over church property. Chief Judge Roberts says that "[o]ur decisions in that area confirm that it is impermissible for the government to contradict a church' determination of who can act as its ministers." So here is the Court's holding in this case:

The members of a religious group put their faith in the handsof their ministers. 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. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. 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. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.

Now, the plaintiff in this case was not technically a minister, but she did take on some ministerial responsibilities, like "conveying the Church's message and carrying out its mission," i.e., "leading others toward Christian maturity and teaching faithfully the Word of God, the Sacred Scriptures, in its truth and purity and as set forth in all the symbolical books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church." She was also "held out as a minister, with a role distinct from that of most of [the Church's] members." As plaintiff is a minister as defined by the Court, her calls falls under the ministerial exception, and she cannot proceed with the case.

So where does this leave us? What about church employees who are not ministers? Can they sue? The Supreme Court does not tell us, though it seems to broadly define who is a "minister" in defining the plaintiff's role. But the holding in this case is narrow; the Court says:

The case before us is an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her. Today we hold only that the ministerial exception bars such a suit. We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers. There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.

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