Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Supreme Court Upholds Ministerial Exception To Bar Teacher's ADA Claim

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, (Sup. Ct., Jan. 11, 2012), concluding unanimously that "there is a ministerial exception grounded in the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment," and that it applies to bar a suit claiming that a "called" teacher at a Lutheran elementary and middle school was fired in retaliation for threatening to bring a lawsuit under the Americans With Disabilities Act. In finding that the exception applied to plaintiff, the court emphasized that she was given the title "minister of religion":
In light of ...  the formal title given Perich by the Church, the substance reflected in that title, her own use of that title, and the important religious functions she performed for the Church—we concludethat Perich was a minister covered by the ministerial exception
Chief Justice Roberts writing for the Court, and reversing the decision of the Sixth Circuit (see prior posting), summarized the Court's holding:
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.
The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.
Concurring opinions were filed by Justice Thomas, and by Justice Alito joined by Justice Kagan.  Later postings on Religion Clause will offer more analysis of today's opinions.