Thursday, January 12, 2012

Supreme Court finds religion, dismisses discrimination lawsuit


Any decision issued by the Supreme Court in an employment case is newsworthy. Thus, even though Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC [pdf] concerns the viability and applicability of the narrow ministerial exception under Title VII, it is still worthy of discussion.

Hosanna-Tabor employed Cheryl Perich as an elementary teacher. She started her employment as a “lay” teacher, and later received her “diploma of vocation” as a commissioned minister “called” by God. As a teacher, she spent approximately 45 minutes per day teaching religious studies, and the rest teaching secular subjects. Hosanna-Tabor terminated her employment after she began suffering from narcolepsy and threatening to sue for discrimination. The EEOC sued on her behalf under the ADA.

Last year, the 6th Circuit permitted Perich to continue with her lawsuit, finding dispositive the fact her primary job functions were secular, not religious. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed, recognized that a constitutional ministerial exception exists under Title VII, and that because Perich was a religious employee she could not sue for discriminatory termination.

Other bloggers, who got to this case before me, have admirably recapped the Court’s opinion:

Instead of retreading their ground, I thought I’d focus on what this case means going forward. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, made it clear that this case only addressed an employment discrimination claim, and not other possible claims a “minister” might bring against a religious institution:

The case before us is an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her. Today we hold only that the ministerial exception bars such a suit. We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers. There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.

***

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.

Wage and hour claims? A church employee fired after being wrongly accused of molesting a child? Given the Court’s reliance on the right of a church, conferred by the Constitution, to “control … the selection of those who will personify its beliefs,” it will be hard to imagine a different result in future cases.

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