Important Supreme Court "Ministerial" Employment Case

Important Supreme Court “Ministerial” Employment Case

The Supreme Court on March 28th agreed to take an employment discrimination case involving the “ministerial exception.” The Court’s eventual ruling will be important for churches. But the case isn’t directly relevant for most faith-based groups. That’s because their hiring is protected by a different legal provision: the Title VII “religious exemption.”

The case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC concerns whether Cheryl Perich, who was fired by a Lutheran elementary school in a dispute about her suitability to resume her teaching position after disability leave, is a “ministerial” employee. If so, then under the “ministerial exception” doctrine the courts and the government cannot second-guess the school’s decision. The courts (not any legislature) created the “ministerial exception” because the Constitution requires the government not to interfere with churches, their ministers, and their ministries.

But who gets to decide which employees are “ministerial” employees? Although the courts agree on the doctrine, they disagree on how to apply it. Some trial and appeals courts have devised a variety of measures to assess whether particular job positions are sufficiently concerned with religious matters to be deemed “ministerial.” An actual pastor obviously is a minister, but what about an Salvation Army officer who spends her time operating the thrift shop–she’s ordained and her interaction with shoppers is a prime opportunity for ministry! Other courts have deferred to the decisions of the religious organizations: the whole point of the ministerial exception is to keep the courts and the government from imposing their views on religious entities. It will make a big difference to religious organizations with “ministerial” employees whether the Supreme Court defers to the organizations’ judgments or instead tries to define what makes an employee a ministerial employee.

Yet this isn’t a case that is directly relevant to most faith-based organizations. That’s because the religious hiring decisions of most parachurch ministries are protected by a different legal protection: the “religious exemption” that is built into Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (and into other federal, state, and local laws concerning employees). This exemption was created by Congress, not the courts, and it applies to every single job position in a religious organization, whether the position is “ministerial” or not. (On the other hand, it only protects hiring decisions based on religion, so there can be arguments about whether a decision was due to religious convictions or mere bias.)

Here the disputes revolve around whether the organization itself is actually a religious institution. In the recent religious hiring case involving World Vision (Spencer v. World Vision), the courts accepted that World Vision is a religious organization although it is engaged in humanitarian work. This case showed again how important it is that faith-based organizations make it very clear to the outside world that they take their religious convictions seriously and that their operations–including their employment decisions–are guided by those convictions.

Still, the Hosanna-Tabor case about the ministerial exception is a very important case for all faith-based organizations–and for our society as a whole. That’s because it is a religious freedom case, and the very heart of religious freedom is respect for the decisions and views of religious institutions and persons, even when their actions and choices conflict with what the courts, government, and the public deem to be proper.