In employment disputes involving a pastor or minister of a church, the term “ministerial exception” comes up time and again. It is therefore imperative that all clergy have a good working knowledge of what this exception is and its legal underpinnings.
The importance of the Hosanna-Tabor ruling
The exception, which finds its origin in several federal and state judicial decisions in the mid-20th century, generally bars the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and clergy. The ministerial exception was affirmed by a unanimous United States Supreme Court in a 2012 ruling. Hosanna–Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012).
The Court concluded that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from “interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select” their clergy.
Significantly, the Supreme Court for the first time explicitly acknowledged that the ministerial exception is required by the First Amendment: