The U.S. Supreme Court released an opinion last month that has already created a great deal of discussion. The Court ruled in the opinion that religious groups and churches may hire and fire their leaders without being subject to laws against discrimination in employment. For the first time, the Court, in a unanimous landmark ruling, recognized a “ministerial exemption” to the nation’s employment discrimination laws. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the Court, said:
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.
The decision clears churches and religious institutions to follow their teachings in employment decisions regarding its leaders. Unfortunately, the Court does not set forth a clear definition of what a leader is, beyond referring to them as “ministers.” Nevertheless, the decision would appear to cover the hiring and dismissal of priests, rabbis and other religious leaders. The decision stops short of declaring that the exemption applies to other types of lawsuits by employees against religious employers.
The case before the High Court involved a teacher at a church and school in Michigan. The teacher developed a disease and went on disability leave. While out, she was told that her employment would be terminated. After the teacher returned to work, she was in fact fired. The teacher filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that her employment had been terminated in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The EEOC brought suit, alleging that the teacher had been fired in retaliation for threatening to file an ADA lawsuit.
The Defendant church argued that the suit was barred by the First Amendment because the claims concerned the employment relationship between a religious institution and one of its ministers. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment in the Defendant’s favor. The Sixth Circuit vacated that lower court ruling and recognized the existence of a ministerial exception rooted in the First Amendment, but concluded that the teacher did not qualify as a “minister” under the exception. But the Supreme Court said that the Sixth Circuit court erred and ruled that the suit must be dismissed. The Supreme Court opinion said the ministerial exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation. But the court did say it would “not adopt a rigid formula” for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.
The First Amendment provides, in part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Supreme Court noted that it has never ruled previously whether the freedom of a religious organization to select its ministers is implicated by a suit alleging discrimination in employment. But the Court pointed out that the courts of appeal have had experience with this issue and they have uniformly recognized the existence of a ministerial exception, grounded in the First Amendment. The High Court said it agrees that there is such a ministerial exception. Chief Justice Roberts wrote:
Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.
The Chief Justice also said that the purpose of the exception is not to safeguard a church’s decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason. On that point, he wrote: “The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful – a matter ‘strictly ecclesiastical.’” The EEOC warned that a ministerial exception could protect religious organizations from liability for retaliating against employees for reporting criminal misconduct or for testifying before a grand jury or in a criminal trial. Also, the EEOC argued that the logic of the exception would confer on religious employers “unfettered discretion” to violate employment laws by, for example, hiring children or aliens not authorized to work in the U.S. But the High Court appears to have limited its decision, when the Chief Justice wrote:
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 unanimous decision was hailed by religious organizations and criticized by many others. Needless to say, this ruling will definitely have an effect and likely will be hotly debated in the coming months.
Source: Insurance Journal
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