The Supreme Court Does Not Further Define “Religious Institution” in Hosanna-Tabor

In it’s 2012 Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Church & School v. EEOC decision, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the validity of the “ministerial exception,” a common law principle that exempts religious institutions from anti-discrimination employment laws in the hiring and discharge of clergy (a decision we have previously commented on here). As the Court discussed in that case, the ministerial exception only applies where the employee or candidate qualifies as a minister and the employer is a religious institution. Although the Court did not adopt “a rigid formula” to define a minister and instead declared that it was a factual, case-specific determination, the Court provided some guidance on this issue in Hosanna-Tabor by analyzing the plaintiff’s training and background, her job duties, and her perception in the community, among other factors. The Supreme Court did not, however, provide similar guidance for determining whether an employer constitutes a “religious institution,” and courts continue to struggle with this question.

Court’s Make Case-Specific Determinations whether Hospitals, Schools are Religious Institutions

Two judicial opinions issued within the past two months highlight the challenges involved in determining what constitutes a “religious institution.” In Penn v. New York Methodist Hospital, the Southern District of New York considered allegations of race discrimination, religious discrimination, and retaliation raised by a Methodist minister who worked as a part-time staff chaplain in the Pastoral Care Department of New York Methodist Hospital (“NYMH”). NYMH sought to dismiss the case on the basis of the ministerial exception, alleging that the plaintiff was a ministerial employee and that it was a religious institution. Although the Court agreed that the Plaintiff was working in a ministerial capacity, the court found a genuine factual dispute regarding NYMH’s status as a “religious institution.” The Court recognized that in some previous cases, religiously affiliated hospitals and health care facilities have qualified as religious institutions. However, the Court noted that many secular hospitals also employ chaplains of different faiths and run their own clinical pastoral education program, similar to NYMH. The Court also noted that in 1975 NYMH removed from its Certificate of Incorporation provisions regarding its relationship with the United Methodist Church (although it was unclear if such provisions were still absent from the Certificate). Thus, the Court was unable to conclude at the early stages of litigation whether NYMH qualified as a religious institution, and it permitted the case to proceed.

In Winberry v. Louisiana College, the defendant college appealed a state trial court’s decision that the ministerial exception did not apply to claims filed by four former professors on the basis that Louisiana College was not a religious institution. Although the defendant in Hosanna-Tabor was also an educational institution, the Louisiana Court of Appeal agreed with the plaintiffs that Louisiana College did not constitute a religious institution. Although the college is governed by a Board of Trustees that is elected by the Louisiana Baptist Convention, the Court was persuaded that it was merely a “liberal arts institution[] that ha[s] undergraduate curricula which require all students to take certain religious courses.” Thus, the trial court did not err in refusing to apply the ministerial exception (Louisiana College, however, won at the appellate level on other grounds).

Community-Based Clergy are Not Necessarily Immune from the Ministerial Exception

The uncertainty regarding what constitutes a “religious institution” is relevant to faith-based employees, particularly clergy who serve in community-based, non-pulpit roles. Based on factual determinations unique to each case, courts have found that religiously affiliated hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and non-profits can constitute religious institutions. It is therefore particularly important for these professionals to take steps to protect themselves from being shutout of the courts in the event that an employment disputes arises.