Teachers at a Religious Preschool Not Considered Ministers

California Appeals Court says the four-factor test for ministerial status in Hosanna-Tabor was not satisfied.

Key Point 8-10.01

The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents them from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.

A California appeals court ruled that the civil courts could resolve a dispute regarding the claim of teachers in a synagogue’s preschool to benefits under a state wage-and-hour law.

Background and teaching requirements

The California Labor Commissioner sued a Jewish synagogue (the “Temple”) claiming that it had violated various provisions of the California Labor Code by failing to provide its preschool teachers with rest breaks, uninterrupted meal breaks, and overtime pay.

The Temple is a Reformed Jewish synagogue whose mission is to promote the Jewish faith and serve and strengthen the Jewish community.

The Temple’s early childhood center (ECC), which employs approximately 40 teachers, is an onsite preschool for children five years of age and under. The ECC’s curriculum has a significant secular component.

ECC teachers spend much of the school day engaged with children in indoor and outdoor play at various learning centers. These learning centers include blocks, puzzles, games, books, and science, and promote reading readiness, writing readiness, and math readiness. Teachers also work with children on social skills, including sharing and kindness, and assist with toileting, meals, and snacks.

The ECC’s curriculum has a religious component of introducing children to Jewish life, religious ritual, and Judaic observance. The religious curriculum includes the celebration of Jewish holidays, weekly Shabbat observance, recitation of the ha-motzi (grace blessing) before meals and snacks, and an introduction to Jewish values such as kehillah (community), hoda’ah (gratitude), and shalom (peace and wholeness). All ECC teachers participate in weekly Shabbat services and teach religious concepts, music, singing, and dance.

The ECC is part of the Temple’s religious and educational mission, and it fulfills a religious obligation of the Temple. The ECC exists to instill and foster a positive sense of Jewish identity and to develop in children favorable attitudes toward the values and practices of Judaism.

ECC teachers are not required to be adherents to the Temple’s religious philosophy or, indeed, to be Jewish. As a result, while some of the ECC’s teachers are Jewish, others are non-Jewish or do not identify with any faith tradition. For example, one former teacher was raised as a Catholic and, prior to taking a job at the ECC, was employed as a teacher and librarian at a private Catholic elementary school. Another teacher is a practicing Catholic; and yet another taught catechism at a church. ECC teachers are not ordained as religious leaders and do not hold themselves out as ministers of the faith.

ECC teachers are not required to have any theological training, to be educated about Judaism, or to be proficient in Hebrew. As a result, some ECC teachers are hired without any knowledge of Jewish religion or practice.

Once employed, teachers are not required to undertake a course of theological study. Instead, the ECC provides teachers with Judaic reading materials, including the Temple’s “holiday packets,” which include explanations of each of the Jewish holidays and the symbols, Hebrew vocabulary, foods, and songs associated with those holidays. In addition, teachers receive guidance on religious observance from the ECC’s rabbis and administrators trained in Jewish education.

Lawsuit focused on the “non-exempt” classification

The California Labor Commissioner sued the school, alleging that the Temple classifies its noncredentialed teachers as “non-exempt,” but does not provide them with 10-minute rest breaks, uninterrupted 30-minute meal breaks, or overtime pay, as required by California’s wage-and-hour laws. The Commissioner alleged wage-and-hour violations, and sought meal and rest period premiums, overtime pay, statutory and civil penalties, and an injunction.

The Temple asked the court to dismiss the case on the ground that the ECC was a religious school and its preschool teachers were “ministerial employees,” and therefore the case was barred by the so-called “ministerial exception,” recognized by the United States Supreme Court in a landmark 2012 case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012) (Hosanna-Tabor). In the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Supreme Court barred the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and ministers.

Were these preschool teachers ministers?

The court dismissed the case, concluding that the Temple’s preschool teachers were “ministers” within the meaning of the ministerial exception, explaining that the exception is not limited to the heads of religious congregations, and prior decisions had recognized that preschool teachers in religious schools could serve ministerial functions.

In the present case, it was undisputed

that the ECC fulfills a religious obligation of the Temple; ECC teachers further the Temple’s mission and implement Judaic curriculum; ECC teachers teach children about Jewish religious holidays; ECC teachers participate in weekly Shabbat services; ECC teachers teach student[s] to say the Jewish grace blessing before each meal and snack; ECC teachers instruct children in saying the Shema prayer and Oseh Shalom, a prayer for peace; teaching children about religious practices, holidays, and rituals fulfills religious commandments; ECC teachers help transmit Judaism to future generations; Judaism does not preclude a non-Jew from teaching the Jewish religion; early Jewish childhood education impacts not only the child, but the Jewish identity of the child’s parents and family; upon a child’s completion of the ECC program, the majority of families continue their children’s Jewish education at the Temple’s schools; and teaching music, singing, and dance to students fulfills a religious obligation and Biblical directive.

Under these facts, the court said, “a reasonable trier of fact could not conclude that ECC teachers do not serve a ministerial function.”

The Commissioner appealed, claiming that the Temple’s preschool program was primarily secular; ECC teachers were not required to study or to adhere to the Temple’s theology to be hired or maintain employment; ECC teachers were not ordained or otherwise recognized as spiritual or religious leaders; ECC teachers did not hold themselves out as ministers; the ECC is open to children of parents who are not adherents of the Temple’s theology; and the Temple’s rabbis, not its teachers, were primarily responsible for the children’s religious instruction and spiritual leadership.

A state appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision and ruled in favor of the Commissioner. It concluded:

Considering all the relevant circumstances of the teachers’ employment, we conclude the ministerial exception does not foreclose the Commissioner’s claims. Although the ECC’s teachers are responsible for some religious instruction, we do not read Hosanna-Tabor to suggest that the ministerial exception applies based on this factor alone. To the contrary, it was central to Hosanna-Tabor’s analysis that a minister is not merely a teacher of religious doctrine—significantly, he or she “personifies” a church’s (or synagogue’s) beliefs and “ministers to the faithful.” The record in the present case is clear that the Temple’s teachers did not play such a role in synagogue life. Indeed, as we have said, many of the Temple’s teachers are not members of the Temple’s religious community or adherents to its faith. Thus, while the teachers may play an important role in the life of the Temple, they are not its ministers.

The court noted that the ECC teachers did not satisfy the Supreme Court’s four-factor test for ministerial status in the Hosanna-Tabor case.

First, the church in Hosanna Tabor “held [the employee] out as a minister,” with a role distinct from that of most of its members.

Second, the employee had the title of minister, which reflected significant religious training followed by a formal process of commissioning.

Third, the employee held herself out as a minister by accepting “the formal call to religious service” and claiming a special housing allowance on her taxes available only to employees earning their compensation in the exercise of the ministry.”

Fourth, the employee’s job duties “reflected a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission.” She taught her students religion three times per week and led her students in prayer three times a day. Once a week, she took her students to a school-wide chapel service, and about twice a year she led the chapel service by choosing the liturgy, selecting the hymns, and delivering a short message based on Bible verses. Thus, she “performed an important role in transmitting the Lutheran faith to the next generation.”

The California court concluded that the ECC teachers were not “ministers” under this four-part test.

What this means for churches

The court narrowly construed the Hosanna-Tabor case. Perhaps most importantly for churches to note, the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor concluded that a finding of ministerial status cannot be based solely on the amount of time a person spends on religious functions.

The Court observed:

The issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch. The amount of time an employee spends on particular activities is relevant in assessing that employee’s status, but that factor cannot be considered in isolation, without regard to the nature of the religious functions performed.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that the teacher’s religious duties “consumed only 45 minutes of each workday, and that the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects.”

However, the Court noted that it was unsure whether any church employees devoted all their time to religious tasks: “The heads of congregations themselves often have a mix of duties, including secular ones such as helping to manage the congregation’s finances, supervising purely secular personnel, and overseeing the upkeep of facilities.” Su v. Temple, 244 Cal. Rptr.3d 546 (Cal. App. 2019).

For additional insights, church leaders should see “Cases Recognizing the Ministerial Exception” and “Cases Not Recognizing the Ministerial Exception” in Pastor Church & Law.

Update. The Temple has petitioned the United States Supreme Court to reverse this decision. The Court has agreed to review a similar case involving the scope of the ministerial exception in the context of religious schools: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.

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