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The Ministerial Exception and Disability Discrimination

The First Amendment generally bars courts from resolving church employment disputes.

Key Point 8-10.1. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.

A federal court in Michigan ruled that it was barred by the "ministerial exception" from resolving a disability discrimination claim brought by a teacher against a church-operated school. The court began its opinion by observing that "for the ministerial exception to bar an employment discrimination claim, the employer must be a religious institution and the employee must have been a ministerial employee." There was no dispute in this case that the school was a religious institution and so the focus shifted to the question of whether the teacher was a ministerial employee. The court concluded that she was. It noted that the exception "most clearly applies to clergy and ordained ministers," but "it is not limited to such employees."

To determine if other employees fall within the exception, courts consider whether "the employee's primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship." Accordingly, "an employee may be considered ministerial, although not ordained, depending on the function and actual role of his or her position in the religious institution." The court concluded that the duties of the teacher in this case clearly made her a ministerial employee to whom the ministerial exception applied:

The separation of church and state in the United States has made federal courts inept when it comes to religious issues; the inquiry into the value of an employee in furthering a religious institution's sectarian mission is no different. The lack of clarity in federal court cases regarding elementary school teachers should not hinder churches from valuing teachers as important spiritual leaders and deciding who will fill those positions as ministerial employees, subject, of course, to inappropriate uses of the title "minister" as subterfuge. For these reasons, it seems prudent in this case to trust [the school's] characterization of its own employee in the months and years preceding the events that led to litigation. Because it considered the teacher to be a "commissioned minister" and the facts surrounding her employment in a religious school with a sectarian mission support this characterization, the court concludes that the teacher was a ministerial employee. If, on these circumstances, the Court were to conclude otherwise, it would risk infringing upon the school's right to choose its spiritual leaders."

Having found that the school was a religious institution, and the teacher was a ministerial employee, the court concluded that it had no alternative but to dismiss the case. E.E.O.C. v. Hosanna-Tabor Church and School, 582 F.Supp.2d 881 (E.D. 2008).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, September/October 2009.

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  • September 1, 2009

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