Ministerial Exception Applies and Precludes ADA Retaliation Claim by Church School Teacher

Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, No. 10-553 (U.S. Jan. 2012).

The Supreme Court, in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, reversed the Sixth Circuit - which had held that a teacher (Ms. Perich) at a church school could bring a ADA retaliation claim - and instead held that the religious or ministerial exemption to ADA (similar to that for Title VII) precluded her claims, since the church regarded the teacher as a minister.

However, this decision does illustrate the fact-specific nature of this determination. For example, Ms. Perich not only took a tax exclusion for her housing - an exclusion limited to members of the ministry - but also submitted a statement in which she said that God had called her to teaching, and was a commissioned minister.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Certain employment discrimination laws authorize employees who have been wrongfully terminated to sue their employers for reinstatement and damages. The question presented is whether the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar such an action when the employer is a religious group and the employee is one of the group's ministers. . . .

. . . . Hosanna-Tabor moved for summary judgment. Invoking what is known as the "ministerial exception," the Church argued that the suit was barred by the First Amendment because the claims at issue concerned the employment relationship between a religious institution and one of its ministers. According to the Church, Perich was a minister, and she had been fired for a religious reason--namely, that her threat to sue the Church vio-lated the Synod's belief that Christians should resolve their disputes internally.

The District Court agreed that the suit was barred by the ministerial exception and granted summary judgment in Hosanna-Tabor's favor. The court explained that "Hosanna-Tabor treated Perich like a minister and held her out to the world as such long before this litigation began," and that the "facts surrounding Perich's employment in a religious school with a sectarian mission" supported the Church's characterization. 582 F. Supp. 2d, at 891- 892. In light of that determination, the court concluded that it could "inquire no further into her claims of retaliation." Id., at 892.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated and remanded, directing the District Court to proceed to the merits of Perich's retaliation claims. The Court of Appeals recognized the existence of a ministerial exception barring certain employment discrimination claims against religious institutions-- an exception "rooted in the First Amendment's guarantees of religious freedom." 597 F. 3d 769, 777 (2010). The court concluded, however, that Perich did not qualify as a "minister" under the exception, noting in particular that her duties as a called teacher were identical to her duties as a lay teacher. Id., at 778-781. Judge White concurred. She viewed the question whether Perich qualified as a minister to be closer than did the majority, but agreed that the "fact that the duties of the contract teachers are the same as the duties of the called teachers is telling." Id., at 782, 784.

We granted certiorari. 563 U. S. ___ (2011). . . . .

Until today, we have not had occasion to consider whether this freedom of a religious organization to select its ministers is implicated by a suit alleging discrimination in employment. The Courts of Appeals, in contrast, have had extensive experience with this issue. Since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U. S. C. ยง2000e et seq., and other employment discrimination laws, the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized the existence of a "ministerial exception," grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes application of such legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.

Newsletter Volume: 
Newsletter - January/February 2012