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    U.S. Supreme Court expands “ministerial exception” for religious organizations

    The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in another high-profile case, Our Lady Guadalupe School v. Morrissey Berru, expanding the “ministerial exception” to foreclose employment discrimination claims brought by two Catholic elementary teachers. This decision brings much-needed clarity for religious organizations regarding their First Amendment rights to make employment decisions with respect to employees who fall within the ministerial exception.

    The ministerial exception was first recognized in 2012 when the Court held in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), that the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses prevent certain ministerial employees from bringing employment discrimination claims against religious organizations. The Hosanna-Tabor Court identified the following four factors to consider in determining when the exception applied:

    • whether the employee was employed as a minister
    • whether the position reflected a significant degree of religious training followed by a formal process of commissions
    • whether the employee held themselves out as a minister by accepting the formal call to religious service and claiming certain tax benefits
    • whether the job duties reflected a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission

    The Court in Hosanna-Tabor did not highlight any of the above factors as essential and, instead, called on courts to take all relevant circumstances into account and to determine whether each particular position implicated the fundamental purpose of the exception. However, the lack of a rigid formula led some lower courts to focus only on the above factors and develop their own interpretations of the proper weight that should be placed on each factor.

    In reversing the Ninth Circuit’s decision that the ministerial exception did not apply to the teachers, the Supreme Court criticized the Ninth Circuit’s rigid application of the Hosanna-Tabor factors as a checklist to be met. The Court found that the Ninth Circuit misunderstood the Hosanna-Tabor decision by failing to take all relevant circumstances into account and by placing too much importance on the fact that the teachers did not have formal religious training and did not have the term “minister” in their titles. The Court clarified that the term “minister” cannot be a necessary requirement, as many religions do not use the actual term “minister.” Instead, what ultimately matters is “what an employee does.”

    In examining the teachers’ roles, the Supreme Court found that they had been entrusted with carrying out the schools’ core missions of educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings and training them to live their faith. The Court found these responsibilities to lie at the center of the mission of the private religious schools. Therefore, the Court held that when a religious school gives such responsibility to an employee, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the employee threatens the school’s independence in a way the First Amendment does not allow. Notably, the Court found that the school’s definition and explanation of the teachers’ roles were important and should be given deference.

    While this decision specifically addresses the relationship between a religious school and its teachers, the expanded interpretation of the ministerial exception provides religious organizations with more latitude in making employment-related decisions with respect to employees who play an important role in the organization’s core mission.

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