Unanimous Supreme Court Finds for Church in Eeoc Fight

By Tony Mauro
Corporate Counsel
January 12, 2012

A surprisingly unanimous Supreme Court on Wednesday endorsed a "ministerial exception" to employment discrimination laws, asserting that under the First Amendment, government must keep its nose out of the hiring and firing of clergy.

"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," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. for the Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC. "The church must be free to choose who will guide it on its way."

The ruling ends a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Cindy Perich, a teacher and "commissioned minister" at a Lutheran school in Michigan. She claimed she had been fired in retaliation for threatening to file a lawsuit under the Americans With Disabilities Act. She disputed the school's treatment of her after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, and the school said she was fired for insubordination and failure to follow internal dispute resolution procedures.

All 12 federal appeals courts have long recognized some form of a ministerial exception, but the Supreme Court had not given its imprimatur until today. Religious groups celebrated the ruling, with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty proclaiming it as "the most important religious liberty case in 20 years."

Groups advocating for the victims of sexual abuse by priests, as well as some civil rights groups, had filed briefs voicing concern that a broad ministerial exception might insulate priests and other religious workers from accountability for abuse and harassment.

But the ruling Wednesday left open the door for lawsuits "alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct." And in a footnote, the Court said the ministerial exception is "not a jurisdictional bar," but rather an affirmative defense. That means federal courts will still have the power to consider discrimination lawsuits involving church officials, but the suits can then be dismissed if the court determines that the exception applies.

"Clergy sex abuse cases should not be affected by this decision," said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, and author of a brief for victim groups and others. "It is a narrow decision that leaves open all legal disputes involving ministers other than discrimination claims by the minister herself."

But Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the ruling would allow religious groups to ignore anti-discrimination laws. "Blatant discrimination is a social evil we have worked hard to eradicate in the United States," said Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director. "I'm afraid the court's ruling today will make it harder to combat."

The Court stopped short of adopting a "rigid formula" for deciding which religious employees qualify for the exception. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit had denied the church the ministerial exception in Perich's case in part because her religious duties occupied only 45 minutes of her workday, with the rest of the day spent teaching secular subjects. But Roberts said most every religious leader or minister also performs secular duties, and the issue of who is a minister can't be "resolved by a stopwatch."

Roberts spent considerable time in the decision on the history of government interference with religious hiring, which he said was a major concern for Puritans and others who came to America. The First Amendment was framed with that in mind, Roberts said, adding that "the religion clauses ensured that the new federal government unlike the English crown would have no role in filling ecclesiastical offices."

When the Court heard the case on the first day of the term Oct. 5, it was not clear that the justices would be unanimous, with some justices expressing concern about the fate of suits by religious school teachers and others who might not be viewed as ministers. Nonetheless Roberts was able to assemble a unanimous court, though Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately to say he would defer to "a religious organization's good-faith understanding of who qualifies as its minister."


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