Supreme Court Affirms 'Ministerial Exception'
Employment disputes between churches and clergy can’t be reviewed by civil courts.

In a ringing endorsement of religious liberty, the United States Supreme Court today unanimously affirmed the so-called "ministerial exception" barring civil court review of employment disputes between churches and ministers. The ministerial exception has been applied to a wide range of employment disputes by state and federal courts over the past half century, but has never before been addressed by the Supreme Court.

Several months ago the Court accepted an appeal of a federal appeals court's decision rejecting the application of the ministerial exception to a claim of disability discrimination by a "called" teacher in a Lutheran secondary school in Michigan who was regarded as a commissioned minis-ter by her church. The appeals court concluded that the exception did not apply because the teacher's duties as a "called" teacher were identical to the duties she previously performed as a lay teacher, and her "religious" duties comprised only 45 minutes of each workday.

On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court issued a decision explicitly recognizing the ministerial exception and concluding that it barred the civil courts from resolving the Lutheran teacher's disability claim. The Court concluded that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from "interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select" their clergy.

Check back for more updates here regarding today's development, as well as new updates onChurchLawAndTax.comand on our sister Hammar also will provide complete in-depth coverage on this decision in the March/April edition of Church Law & Tax Report.

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