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Workplace Issues: Ministerial employees exempt from discrimination laws

Lindy Korn

The Supreme Court on Jan. 11, for the first time recognized a ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws, saying that churches and other religious groups must be free to choose and dismiss their leaders without government interference. The decision gave only limited guidance about who counts as a minister, not wanting to adopt a rigid formula. The ruling will have concrete consequences for employees of religious groups who perform religious work.

The core question before the court was who should be a minister entitled to the exception?

The case, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC, No. 10-553, was brought by Cheryl Perich who joined the faculty of the Redford School as a contract teacher to teach kindergarten. The next year she completed the required religious studies and became a “called” teacher, but with no change in teaching duties. After three years of teaching kindergarten she moved into teaching third and fourth grades. Using secular textbooks she taught math, language arts, social studies, science, gym, art, and music. She also taught a 30 minute religious class four days a week, and attended chapel with her class once a week for 30 minutes. In June 2004 Ms. Perich was diagnosed with narcolepsy. With no definite resolution of her medical condition, school officials in January 2005, decided to ask her to give up her “call” and resign.

Perich refused and obtained a note from her doctor with a return to work date in February. When she showed up for work she was turned away. She threatened to sue and the school charged her with insubordination and rescinded her “call.”

In March 2010, a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that determinations of which employees fall under the ministerial exception should be based on the employees’ primary duties, and as such the appeals panel said the district court erred in rejecting Ms. Perich’s claim.

In its decision, the Supreme Court for the first time recognizes a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, stating that the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses was to prohibit government interference in the internal affairs of religious groups generally and in the selection of their leaders in particular. Chief Justice Roberts wrote, requiring Perich to be reinstated “would have plainly violated the church’s freedom, and so would awarding her and her lawyer money, as that would operate as a penalty on the church for terminating an unwanted minister.”

This decision gives the religious institutions autonomy from the employment discrimination laws that allowed protections to workers who were retaliated against for reporting sexual abuse. However, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the possibility of criminal prosecution is a protection still in place.

It seems to this writer that the ministerial exception has trumped the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes, in the name of religious freedom.

Lindy Korn practices at The Law Office of Lindy Korn and can be reached at lkk75atty@aol.com or (716) 856-KORN (5676).