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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC: Teacher/Minister May Not Sue Church for Discrimination, Wrongful Termination

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, --- S.Ct. ----, 2012 WL 75047 (1/11/12), the Supreme Court considered whether a minister may sue her church for wrongful termination based on acts of discrimination. In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court held that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar such actions.

Cheryl Perich worked as a teacher for Hosanna-Tabor. She was considered "called," meaning that she was regarded as having been called to her vocation by God through a congregation. She taught academic and religious classes and led the students in prayer. Perich was diagnosed with narcolepsy and went on disability leave. When Perich advised the school that she was able to return to work, it told her that it had filled her position. After Perich showed up for work, Hosanna-Tabor terminated her.

Perich filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that Hosana-Tabor had terminated her employment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 42 U. S. C. §12101 et seq. The EEOC filed suit, alleging that Hosanna-Tabor had fired Perich in retaliation for threatening to file an ADA lawsuit. Hosanna-Tabor moved for summary judgment, arguing that Perich was a minister, and she had been fired for a religious reason - namely, that her threat to sue the Church violated the Synod’s belief that Christians should resolve their disputes internally. The District Court agreed that the suit was barred by the ministerial exception and granted summary judgment in Hosanna-Tabor’s favor. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the decision, but the Supreme Court granted certiorari and affirmed.

The Court began by tracing the history of the First Amendment Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses from the Magna Carta, through the reign or Henry VIII, to the founding of the colonies by the Puritans, and the early days of the United States. The principal lesson drawn from this history is that the government under the First Amendment has no role in telling a church whom to choose as its minister. In the words of then Secretary of State James Madison in 1806, the selection of church functionaries was an “entirely ecclesiastical” matter left to the Church’s own judgment. Slip op. at 9.

The Court then considered whether "this freedom of a religious organization to select its ministers is implicated by a suit alleging discrimination in employment." Slip op. at 13. The Court held that there is a “ministerial exception,” grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes application of anti-discrimination legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers. Ibid.
The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. 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 governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.
Slip op. at 13-14.

The Court then held that the ministerial exception applied to the facts of the present case. The Court declined to set a bright line rule on the limits of the ministerial exemption and instead looked to the particular facts of the case, including: Hosanna-Tabor held Perich out as a minister; her title as a minister "reflected a significant degree of religious training followed by a formal process of commissioning;" Perich held herself out as a minister of the Church by accepting the formal call to religious service; and her job duties reflected a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission. Slip op. at 16-18. The Court concluded:
The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.
Slip op. at 21-22.

The opinion is available here.

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