Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments In Hosanna-Tabor Case

The U.S. Supreme Court today heard oral arguments (full transcript) in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. In the case, the 6th Circuit refused to apply the "ministerial exception" to a retaliation claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act brought by a parochial school teacher. Answering a question from Justice Ginsburg, Douglas Laycock, representing the school, argued for broad coverage of the ministerial exception doctrine, saying:
If she's commissioned as a minister and if that is not a sham, then we think that makes her a minister. If you have a Jesuit teaching physics, we think he is still a priest and he is still controlled by the ministerial exception....
JUSTICE GINSBURG: ... did I understand you before, in response to Justice Sotomayor and Justice Scalia, that even if she were merely a contract teacher, the fact that she teaches religion classes would be enough for her to qualify for the ministerial exception? 
 MR. LAYCOCK: Yes. And the fact that she's a commissioned minister is the clincher in this case.
Justice Scalia then probed the meaning of "commissioned minister:
JUSTICE SCALIA: And that term is a legal term. What constitutes a minister is -- is decided by the law, not by the church, right?
MR. LAYCOCK: That is correct.
The government, represented by Assistant to the Solicitor General Leondra Kruger urged the Court to take an approach that does not focus on the traditional "ministerial exception" tests:
MS. KRUGER: The contours -- the inquiry that the Court has set out as to expressive associations we think translate quite well to analyzing the claim that Petitioner has made here. And for this reason, we don't think that the job duties of a particular religious employee in an organization are relevant to the inquiry.
... the government's interest in this case is not in dictating to the church-operated school who it may choose to teach religion classes and who it may not. It is one thing and one thing only, which is to tell the school that it may not punish its employees for threatening to report civil wrongs to civil authorities. That is an interest that we think overrides the burden on the association's religious message about the virtues of internal dispute resolution as opposed to court resolution.
The merits and amicus briefs in the case are available online. ScotusBlog has a summary of the arguments.The Los Angeles Times also reports on the oral arguments.