Although religious institutions are generally required to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws, certain exceptions apply. One of those exceptions is the “ministerial exception,” a legal doctrine that shields religious institutions from liability for employment discrimination claims brought by a “minister” of the institution. The exception, grounded in the religious clauses of the First Amendment, seeks to protect the rights of religious organizations to choose who they want to employ in “ministerial” roles, even if those decisions run afoul of anti-discrimination laws.
The Supreme Court recently interpreted the scope of the ministerial exception broadly to include teachers at religious schools who perform religious duties, regardless of whether they hold the formal title of minister. Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru (U.S. 7/8/20). In a case decided this past week, the Ninth Circuit took it a step further, extending application of the exception to a high school principal. Orr v. Christian Bros. High Sch. (9th Cir. 11/23/21).
Christopher Orr was the first African-American principal to serve Christian Brothers High School, a Catholic school located in California. He was terminated mid-school year, following a series of complaints by Orr against the school’s executive leadership about perceived race discrimination and retaliation.
After he was terminated, Orr sued his former employer for a variety of employment law claims, including race discrimination and harassment. A California district court ruled that Orr’s claims were barred by the ministerial exception. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.
In support of its ruling, the Ninth Circuit cited Morrissey-Berru, and noted the following facts: Orr participated in religious services and activities. He aided the school in developing a faith-based community and inculcating faith-based teachings. He had supervisory authority over aspects of religious instruction and programming. And he received religious education as part of his role.
The Ninth Circuit also declined to grant an exception to the ministerial exception for Orr’s harassment claims, as it had done in prior cases alleging claims for sexual harassment. According to the court, Orr’s claims of race harassment “were so intertwined with the employment decisions” that the claims could not be separated from his employment claims and no exception to the ministerial exception could therefore apply.