High Court Finds Ministerial Exception to Bias by Church Employer

January 17, 2011 (PLANSPONSOR.com) – The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a teacher fired by a church-run school is barred from suing the church for discrimination.

For the first time, the court found that a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws applied to her as a church employee, who had “a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission,” the New York Times reports.  

The ruling abandons the court’s longtime practice of balancing the interest in the free exercise of religion against important government interests, like protection against workplace bias or retaliation, according to the Times. With a balancing test, courts consider whether a general law, if applied to a religious institution, would inhibit its freedom more broadly than justified and, in those circumstances, courts could exempt the church.   

In her brief, Cheryl Perich warned that expanding the ministerial exception to include workers like her would allow a religious organization, for example, to retaliate against a teacher for reporting sexual abuse of a student to the government. But, Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. dismissed that argument as one of an unwarranted “parade of horribles,” but he provided no indication of how the teacher could fight back. A footnote says the ministerial exception does not bar courts from considering cases like Perich’s.  

The court also rejected the plea of the government to include only those with “exclusively religious functions” and does not limit the exception to ministers, priests, rabbis or other religious leaders.   

According to the news report, Perich had gotten sick and missed a term of teaching. When the school asked her to resign, she refused and threatened to sue. The school fired her, saying church policy required that it resolve the dispute internally. Perich sued for retaliation.   

Perich spent most of her time teaching non-religious subjects with about a sixth of her time on religion classes, so the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals previously concluded that she was not a ministerial worker and that she could sue. In overturning that decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the question could not be “resolved by a stopwatch” and that Perich’s limited teaching about religion helped qualify her as a minister.

The opinion in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al. is at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-553.pdf