Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC on January 11, 2012, there has been a lot of discussion regarding whether the court did the right thing when it upheld the ministerial exception and denied jurisdiction in a case involving the termination of a ministerial employee. For reasons outlined below, I believe the Court made the right, albeit difficult, decision.

This was the case of the parochial school teacher who in addition to teaching on secular subjects also performed religious functions, Cheryl Perich, who was fired for threatening to file a lawsuit under the Americans with Disaiblities Act when she was not given her job back after returning from medical leave.  The religious employer argued that it was against its religious beliefs for a minister to sue the church, and that these things had to be handled within the church structure.

The issue presented before the Court was whether the anti-retaliation prohibition of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) could be constitutionally applied to a religious association's retaliatory firing of a parochial school teacher who taught secular subjects and also performed religious functions and was designated a commissioned minister.

The Supreme Court found that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar ministers from bringing lawsuits against their churches in which the ministers claim violation of employment discrimination laws. In this case, the Court found that Perich was a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception, and therefore the First Amendment required dismissal of her employment discrimination suit against her religious employer.

The ministerial exception gives religious institutions certain rights to control employment matters without interference from the secular courts. It does not, as the Court decision points out, affect criminal, tort, or contract law. So churches cannot use it to shield themselves from liability for criminal acts, negligent behavior leading to accidents, or breach of contract and is when the use of a speak to a car wreck lawyer in Atlanta could be the best option for this. But it does protect churches from being hauled into court for religious decisions that have been made.

Some have tried to advance the theory that Perich had not fully pursued the administrative remedies available to her in the parochial system, but that would not have changed the outcome which hinged on the threshold issue of whether the ministerial exception applied to her. If the exception applied, the Court lacked jurisdiction.

Another misconception is that the Hosanna-Tabor decision somehow establishes the ministerial exception and adds something new. In reality, Congress specifically built an exception for religious organizations into Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII was enacted by Congress to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. (42 U.S. C. §§ 2000e-2(a)). Under the statutory exception, religious employers could prefer members of their own faith in making their hiring decisions.

The actual ministerial exception was born in 1972, when, in McClure v. Salvation Army, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to hear a female minister's gender discrimination claim. The court found that applying the provisions of Title VII to the employment relationship existing between a church and its ministers would therefore "cause the State to intrude upon matters of church administration and government" which would "result in an encroachment by the State into an area of religious freedom."

The way it works is that courts in most Circuits rely upon a role-based or "primary duties test" to determine whether an employee is a minister within the exception, and whether or he she can bring suit under Title VII. Several circuits have adopted an approach that religious institutions should be able to choose who will perform certain spiritual functions. The first approach focuses on the employment relationship, while the second focuses on the right of churches to exercise their beliefs more freely.

Perich was, in many ways, the perfect "poster child" to challenge the ministerial exception. The case clearly involved a non-religious issue and for all the world, it looked like the church was looking for a way to fire her in a way that would be against public policy as applied to secular organizations and still avoid being hauled into court for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In fact, the EEOC, the ACLU, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State ("AU") rallied to Perich's side. In its brief, AU argued that the ministerial exception did not entitle religious entities to discriminate or retaliate for reasons unrelated to religion, and that courts should determine whether an asserted religious justification for an action is pretextual.

In short, a church would therefore need to pass a two-prong test – first, it would have to demonstrate that its discriminatory rule was related to its religious beliefs; second, it would need to demonstrate that its action was not "pretextual."

The AU brief gave some examples of what it meant to litigate on issues of discrimination that were not particularly related to a church's doctrine. For instance, a Catholic Church could not be forced to hire a female priest, but an otherwise egalitarian church would not be permitted to fire a Sunday-school teacher when the pastor had a purely personal belief that "women should not work outside the home."  The examples continued for several pages, permitting organizations to make discriminatory doctrinal rulings but not permitting local churches from acting in contrast to non-discriminatory denominational policies or practice.

Applying an Employment Division v. Smith style argument, AU argued that generally applicable employment laws should apply to churches unless there is a need to safeguard a constitutional right. Why they would appeal to this analysis is particularly curious. The Smith decision created a major problem for free exercise of religion by subjecting religious minorities to the rule of the majority even if it goes against the minority's religious beliefs. (One can hope that the Court, in the near future, might see the wisdom of applying the Hosanna-Tabor analysis to individual religious liberty rights and re-establishing the Free Exercise Clause that was compromised in Smith.)

The AU brief is helpful in that it provides a concrete example of the depth to which the government and courts would need evaluate in order to determine whether church employment decisions were permissible or not.

Under the approach proposed by AU, church decisions would be open to scrutiny as to whether they were doctrinal or not, and the investigators would then need to go into the minds of the decision makers to see whether such decisions were made in good faith and not merely to achieve a favorable outcome for the institution.

As people often say, bad cases often make bad law and the Supreme Court had just such an opportunity to throw away the ministerial exception in this highly sympathetic case and effectively destroy the wall of separation of church and state by allowing the state entry into the inner workings of the church. Fortunately the Court saw the bigger issues involved and made the right decision.

However by ruling the way it did, the Supreme Court protected the right of a religious organization to select its clergy without government interference and avoided placing church doctrine under government interpretation. Civil magistrates will not be in a position where they are forced to determine which religious view, that of the clergy member or the church, is correct.

Church leaders are free to choose ministers who they believe will carry their message forward.

While most religious organizations sincerely strive to provide fair and equitable treatment to all employees, this does not mean that some religious organizations will not abuse the "ministerial exception" to make poor personnel decisions that could lead to costly litigation if they were secular organizations. But organizational decision makes should realize that they will ultimately answer to a Higher Power even if these cases may not be pursued in the civil courts.

For more information on the ministerial exception and its history, I would recommend the Charleston Law Review article by Todd Cole, "The Ministerial Exception:  Resolving the Conflict between Title VII and the First Amendment." The article is available online at




1 Comment

  1. Brett P says:

    Great article Michael!  I am reading the brief for the petitioner of the case, and pages 42 and on talk a lot about the history of a "called" teacher in the Lutheran religion, as well as the extensiveness of the training that Perich went through for her ability to be "called."  I think this context is really important.  This may sound extreme, but what if a religion viewed a completely "secular" position as being sacred?  Courts have stated that janitor's would not be under the exception, but what if they were janitors to a holy place in a sacred building like a temple?  Would a church be forced to let them continue to do so?  

    It was nice meeting you this weekend, thanks for pointing me to your blog

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