On Jan. 11, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in a significant church employment dispute, giving religious organizations wide latitude in hiring and firing clergy and other employees who perform religious duties. In its unanimous decision, the high court explicitly recognized a legal doctrine known as the “ministerial exception.” Lower courts have used the doctrine to exempt religious organizations from anti-discrimination laws and other statutes that regulate how employers treat their workers, but this is the first time that the Supreme Court has ruled on the constitutionality of the doctrine.
The case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, involved the dismissal of a teacher at a Lutheran school in Michigan who performed both secular and religious duties. The teacher argued that she had been fired in violation of laws protecting people with disabilities. Specifically, she claimed that the religious school had retaliated against her for asserting her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But the high court ruled that the ministerial exception trumps anti-discrimination laws. “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the court. “But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.” A September legal analysis by the Pew Forum examined the main arguments in the case.
Read the full report, In Brief: The Supreme Court Takes Up Church Employment Disputes and the “Ministerial Exception”, on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.