The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a decision regarding the ministerial exception to Title VII. Title VII of the Civil Rights act of 1964 prohibits discrimination. But, for decades, courts have excepted religious institutions from Title VII. Based on the First Amendment, all circuit courts have recognized that a religious institution may discriminate based on religion. That is, a Baptist school may require that teachers subscribe to the Baptist faith and even to attend Baptist chiurches.
In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC, Et. Al., No. 10-553, Cheryl Perich taught many classes, one of which was religion. She was a "called" teacher, meaning she had received theological training. Without that training, she would be considered a "lay" teacher. She developed narcolepsy and went out on disability leave. After several months, she notified the Principal that she could return. The school, however, told her she had been replaced by a lay teacher. The Principal expressed concern that Ms. Perich was not truly ready to return to teaching. The school offered to pay her health insurance for several months in return for her resignation. When Ms. Perich refused, she was fired.
The EEOC filed suit, arguing the school was guilty of disability based discrimination. Ms. Perich joined the lawsuit. The employer moved for summary judgment, invoking the ministerial exception, since Ms. Perich was a "called" teacher. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The employer then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The EEO and the plaintiff tried to argue that religious freedom is protected by Title VII. Title VII itself prohibits discrimination based on religion. The court dispensed with that issue quickly. The real issue was whether the ministerial exception would apply. Was Ms. Perich a true clergy for purposes of the First Amendment? The Supreme Court unanimously said she was and found in favor of the employer. The Supreme Court overruled the Sixth Circuit’s finding that Ms. Perich performed the same religious duties as lay teachers. The court noted that lay teachers performed those duties only when called teachers were not available.
The Supreme Court noted that yes, Ms. Perich performed many secular duties. In fact, her religious duties comprised only some 45 minutes out of her normal work day. But, the court simply noted that that fact alone is not sufficient to make her something other than a minister. Many full-time ministers perform secular duties, as well, said the court.
The Supreme Court thus rejected the "function" test regarding the ministerial exception. The Supreme Court did not provide an alternative test, but noted that the teacher in this case had been certified by her faith as a "called" teacher and performed religious duties on a regular basis.
The EEOC also argued that the ministerial exception here was pretext. The school was actually motivated by the employee’s disability. The Supreme Court, however, simply, responded that the ministerial exception applies to all employment decisions.
This decision does not change the law. The courts of appeals have long recognized the ministerial exception. But, now it has Supreme recognition…… See decision here.