United States Supreme Court Rules on Employment Matter
The United States Supreme Court unanimously held that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar lawsuits brought by ministers against churches if the ministers claim to have been terminated in violation of employment discrimination laws. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC et al., No. 10-553, (Jan. 11, 2012), available at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-553.pdf.
Here, a church school employed a teacher as a “called” teacher and a commissioned minister. In addition to teaching secular courses, she taught a religion class and participated in chapel services. After taking disability leave, the teacher was told that her position had been filled. She threatened legal action, and the school fired her. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued, claiming the church school discharged the teacher in retaliation for threatening to bring a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Court recognized that a ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws exists. If the government required a church to retain an unwanted minister or punished a church for failing to do so, that action would interfere with the internal governance of the church. Here, the teacher was a minister within the ministerial exception because both the church school and the teacher held her out as a minister, her title required significant religious training and formal commissioning, and her job duties carried out the church’s mission.
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