Supreme Court Holds “Ministerial Exception” Stops Discrimination Claims

Darrell VanDeusen
Darrell VanDeusen

In a decision that many are calling a resounding victory for religious organizations, the Supreme Court has unanimously decided that the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses create a “ministerial exception” that bars an ADA lawsuit (and by extension all discrimination cases) brought against a religious organization by a former elementary school teacher who was a Lutheran “commissioned minister.  Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, — U.S. –, 2012 U.S. LEXIS 578 (U.S. Jan. 11, 2012).

Cheryl Perich was a “called” teacher at the Lutheran School, and held the title “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.”  In addition to teaching numerous secular subjects, she taught a religion class, led students in daily prayer, and attended school-wide chapel services.  Perich took leave for illness for one school year, and was eventually fired.  She filed an ADA claim and eventually the EEOC took up her cause.  Reversing a decision in the School’s favor, the Sixth Circuit held that the “ministerial exception” did not apply to Perich’s claim, mainly because she was teaching secular subjects most of the time.  She just wasn’t enough of a minister.

Reversing this decision, Chief Justice Roberts writing for the Court said that “[b]y imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”   He continued, that  “[a]ccording the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.”

Note that some states, including Maryland, have a less sweeping interpretation of the “ministerial exception.” See Prince of Peace Lutheran Church v. Linklater, – MD –, 2011 Md. LEXIS 574 (Sept. 21, 2011).  It will be interesting to see whether the Supreme Court’s ruling has any impact at the state level.

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