In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception permits religiously affiliated schools to fire employees for discriminatory reasons. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Court’s majority held that two Catholic school teachers could not sue their employers under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) or Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), laws that protect secular employees from discrimination. The majority ruled that the First Amendment’s religion clauses provide religious employers with discretion to make employment decisions without judicial review.
This case involved two fifth-grade teachers at different Catholic Schools. One school fired its teacher shortly after she revealed her breast cancer diagnosis. In the secular world, this teacher would be able to sue under the ADA. The other school demoted an older teacher, then failed to renew her contract. This teacher would have been able to sue under the ADEA had she not worked at a religiously affiliated school. Although all teachers at the schools were required to teach religion to their students, neither of these teachers was a minister or even had extensive religious training. In other words, their jobs were more secular than that of the teacher involved in the Supreme Court’s 2012 Hosanna Tabor case, which similarly applied the ministerial exception to a teacher fired because she suffered from narcolepsy.
In Guadalupe, Justice Alito wrote that religious employers do not “enjoy a general immunity from secular laws, but [do have] autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission.” Although, unlike the teacher in Hosanna Tabor, the two teachers in this case did not have formal religious training or the title of “minister”, the Court ruled that the teachers’ “core responsibilities” were “a vital part in carrying out the mission of the church.” In essence, the Court is saying that the First Amendment gives religious institutions the discretion to characterize an employee’s duties as religious in nature and, ultimately, to terminate or otherwise discriminate against them. In dissent, Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg objected to this broadening of the ministerial exception and highlighted the “potential for abuse” when employers can “decide for themselves whether discrimination is actionable” without judicial review.
Notably, this decision comes just one month after the National Labor Relations Board made it easier to exclude employees of religiously affiliated schools from labor law protections in the Bethany College case. This trend toward strengthening the ministerial exception, although focused on teachers, puts all employees of religious organizations in an increasingly precarious position when it comes to asserting rights that secular employees have. This is all the more reason that clergy and other such employees need strong dispute resolution provisions built into their contracts.
Post co-authored by Michael Gan and Jean-Marc Favreau