Supreme Court Tackles "Ministerial Exception"

Introduction

Many courts have ruled that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from resolving employment disputes between churches and ministers. This so-called "ministerial exception" has been applied to a range of employment disputes, including discrimination, wrongful dismissal, and compensation claims. The exception has been applied in several cases to persons who are not ordained ministers but whose functions are central to the promotion and furtherance of a church's mission.

Though several state and federal courts have addressed the ministerial exception, the United States Supreme Court has yet to do so. That is about to change. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal involving the dismissal of a teacher by a church-operated secondary school. A federal district court in Michigan ruled that it was barred by the ministerial exception from resolving a disability discrimination claim brought by the teacher (the "plaintiff") against her employing 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 that the school was a religious institution and so the focus shifted to the question of whether the plaintiff 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."

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Posted: July 1, 2011
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