Certain employees of religious institutions are exempted from employment discrimination laws under what is known as the “ministerial exception.” It is an off-shoot of a religious institution’s constitutional right to be free from judicial interference in the selection ministerial employees. For this exception to bar an employment discrimination claim: (1) the employer must be a religious institution, and (2) the employee must be a ministerial employee. In EEOC v. Perich [pdf] (decided today), the 6th Circuit for the first time addressed the issue of the reach of this exception to a teacher at a religious school.
The court distinguished between an employee who primarily teaches secular subjects, and one who teaches primarily religious subjects or had a central role in the spiritual or pastoral mission of the church. The Court concluded that Perich –who only spent 30-45 minutes out of each 7-hour day on religious subjects – was not a ministerial employee. “The fact that Perich participated in and led some religious activities throughout the day does not make her primary function religious.” Thus, Perich was able to proceed with her ADA claim against her employer.
This case underscores that religious intuitions do not receive a free pass from discrimination laws. Instead, the application of these laws will depend on an individualized assessment of each employee’s job duties. Unless an employee’s primary function is “spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship,” that employee is entitled to the protections afforded by the discrimination laws.
If parochial schools believed they were exempt from anti-discrimination laws, they should be working with their employment attorneys to update their handbooks with EEO and harassment policies, and to train all of their employees as soon as possible on these issues.