Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion expressly recognizing “a ministerial exception,” which bars “ministers” employed by faith based employers from suing for discrimination. In Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC, the Supreme Court considered the case of Cheryl Perich, an elementary teacher at a Church School. Although Perich was also a commissioned minister, the vast majority of her working time was devoted to teaching secular subjects. Perich took a six-month leave of absence from work after being diagnosed with narcolepsy. When she attempted to return to work, she was informed by her principal that the school already hired a lay teacher to fill her position. The school asked Perich to resign. She refused to quit, stating that she intended to pursue her legal rights. The Church School fired Perich for insubordination, disruptive behavior, and threatening to take legal action against the school. The EEOC sued on Perich’s behalf, claiming Perich’s discharge constituted unlawful retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Supreme Court held Perich’s suit was barred by the “ministerial exception” created by the First Amendment religion clauses. The Court recognized the “ministerial exception” because “requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governments of the church.” The Court did not decide whether the ministerial exception bars other types of employee suits, such as actions for breach of contract or torts.
The Hosanna-Tabor decision grants churches and other religious entities broad discretion in making decisions concerning the employment of their “ministers.” Still, employers should still be cautious when making these types of employment decisions, even if the employer believes it will be shielded by the ministerial exemption. Remember, just because you think you have the “right” to do something, does not mean you should do it.