How the Ministerial Exception Affects Religious Discrimination Claims

It is well known that Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on religious affiliation or beliefs. Yet, as with most things, there are certain exceptions or exemptions to Title VII’s religion protections that apply to particular employers. For example, certain designated “religious organizations” and “religious educational institutions” may be exempt from certain religious discrimination provisions. There is also a recognized “ministerial exception” that bars Title VII claims by employees who work in clergy positions.

Issues faced by employees of Catholic schools

One common example of religious discrimination can be found with religious-affiliated schools. A New Jersey guidance counselor and coach at Paramus Catholic High School was terminated when the school found out she was in a same-sex marriage. Kate Drumgoole filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against Paramus. The school argued that she was fired because she was not living according to the beliefs of the Catholic religion. Drumgoole, on the other hand, argued that other employees who were divorced or who violated other Catholic tenets were not terminated.

Not necessarily a case of sexual orientation discrimination

While at first glance this may resemble a sexual orientation discrimination claim, it can also be cast as religious discrimination. More importantly, sexual orientation is not categorically protected by federal law, whereas, religious discrimination is. Employers are prohibited from taking adverse employment action, such as terminating an employee, based on a protected class such as religious affiliation or beliefs. The issue is whether a religious institution can make these types of employment decisions, clearly based on religious bias. The answer is often the "ministerial exception."

What is the "ministerial exception?"

In an effort to protect the separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion in our country, certain exceptions have been recognized in employment law for the benefit of religious institutions. These exceptions basically allow religious organizations to favor individuals who share their religious beliefs. This exception is so-named because the most common application is to employees who are church ministers. This particular exception to religious discrimination is considered an affirmative defense, which means it must be proven by the employer who is seeking its protection from suit.

A particularly harsh U.S. Supreme Court decision

This is a newly recognized exception, first established in 2012 through the U.S. Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC. That case was particularly surprising and harsh to employees. In Hosanna, the employee was an ordained teacher who was diagnosed with narcolepsy, forcing her to take disability leave. She was asked to resign after 6-months leave solely because of her disability. The EEOC sued the church on the employee's behalf.

The Supreme Court delivered a unanimous decision in favor of a particularly harsh version of the ministerial exception. The Court ruled that employees whose position involves "conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission" are barred by the First Amendment from suing over employment discrimination. This decision resulted in extremely broad protection for religious institutions, essentially making them totally insulated from discrimination lawsuits filed by any individual who can be deemed a “minister.”

How is a "minister" defined?

Perich, the employee in Hosanna, was ordained but spent a very limited part of her time teaching anything related to religion. Nevertheless, the Court determined she qualified as a minister, without providing any guidance as to why. Consequently, the Court avoided articulating a clearly delineated test for determining who constitutes a "minister" for purposes of this exception.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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