U.S. Supreme Court Reinforces “Ministerial Exception,” Protecting Religious Employers from Employment Discrimination Claims

Candace A. Bankovich

On July 8, 2020, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, Case No. 19-267.  In this opinion, the Court addressed two consolidated cases involving suits by former teachers at Catholic schools in California whose contracts were not renewed.  In one case, the plaintiff sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; in the second, the teacher, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The schools obtained summary judgment in the trial court, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

In the majority opinion written by Justice Alito and joined by Justices Roberts, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Thomas, Breyer, and Kagan, the Court first explained the nature of the “ministerial exception,” first recognized by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  Religious institutions are not exempt from secular laws, but they do have “autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission.”  The “ministerial exception” is so named because in early cases addressing the doctrine, the issue was the hiring or discharge of ministers.  However, the Court makes clear that the exception is not limited to employees with the title “minister” or with similar title such as priest or rabbi.  Moreover, the Court explained that the four factors addressed in Hosanna-Tabor (title, degree of religious training, whether the plaintiff holds himself/herself out as a minister, and job duties) are not necessarily controlling or even relevant in all cases.  Rather, the key consideration is what the employee actually does, and performing duties of religious education may bring an employee within the scope of the exception.  The Court observed that all major religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic Church, place great emphasis on religious education.

Turning to the facts of the two cases at issue, the Court noted that both teachers provided religious instruction in the Catholic faith, which was “at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught.”  They were “expected to guide their students, by word and deed, toward the goal of living their lives in accordance with the faith;” this guidance included praying with students, attending Mass, and participating in other religious activities.  The fact that neither bore the title of “minister” was not relevant.  For these reasons, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, contends that the First Amendment requires courts to defer to any good faith claim by a religious institution that the position at issue is ministerial.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ginsburg, states that she would have favored keeping the four factors from Hosanna-Tabor, and that the majority improperly collapses these four factors into a single test.  She would affirm the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Given that the majority opinion appears to broaden the category of employees who may fit within the ministerial exception, religious institutions may have more latitude in hiring and firing decisions without fear of liability under employment laws.