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U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Ministerial Exception

Published by on January 23, 2012

On January 11, 2012, in a 9-0 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception bars an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister challenging her church’s decision to fire her.  More on the case after the break. Cheryl Perich was employed by Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in 1999 […]

On January 11, 2012, in a 9-0 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception bars an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister challenging her church’s decision to fire her.  More on the case after the break.

Cheryl Perich was employed by Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in 1999 as a lay teacher. Later, she completed her colloquy and was designated by the church as a commissioned minister. Perich taught taught math, language arts, social studies, science, gym, art, and music.  She also taught religion four days a week, led the students at the school in prayer and devotions, and led the school-wide chapel services.

Perich was diagnosed with narcolepsy in 2004.  After being on disability leave for several months, Perich reported that she still was not able to return to work. The congregation then voted to release Perich from her calling as a minister, utilizing a “peaceful release” – the congregation would pay a portion of her health insurance premiums in exchange for her resignation. Perich refused to resign and threatened legal action. The school board later terminated her on the grounds of insubordination and disruptive behavior as well has based on her damaged working relationship with the school.

The EEOC brought suit against Hosanna-Tabor on behalf of Perich, alleging that Perich’s employment was terminated in retaliation for her threatening to file a suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Hosanna-Tabor moved for summary judgment, invoking the “ministerial exception” – arguing that the suit was barred by the First Amendment because the claims involved the relationship between a religious institution and one of its ministers. The church claimed that Perich had violated its religious principle to resolve disputes internally by. The district court agreed with Hosanna-Tabor that Perich’s termination was covered by the ministerial exception. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit found that Perich did not qualify as a minister under the exception because she had the same duties as a lay teacher.

The Supreme Court first reviewed the history of the First Amendment and the roots of the ministerial exception. The Court concluded that there is a ministerial exception and that requiring a church or religious institution to retain an unwanted minister causes government intrusion into the internal governance of the church.  This deprives the church of control over selecting who will represent its beliefs, interfering with the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.

Second, the Court considered the scope of the ministerial exception. The Court found that Perich did fall under the exception and cited numerous reasons. Hosanna-Tabor held Perich out as a minister, including issuing her a “diploma of vocation” with the title of “Minister of Religion Commissioned.”  The congregation also reviewed Perich’s “skills of ministry” as part of her employee review. She also received religious training as a minister and had to complete coursework and testing in her religious education. The Court also found that Perich held herself out as a minister – she claimed a special housing allowance on her taxes available to those in ministry. Perich’s job duties also reflected a religious role, including teaching religion, taking part in the chapel service at the church, leading students in devotional instruction.

The Court therefore concluded that religious groups have an interest in choosing their ministers – “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.”

For the full opinion, click here.

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