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Religious Freedom and Civil Rights: the Supreme Court Expands Application of the Ministerial Exception

On Behalf of | Jul 14, 2020 | Business & Employment, Employment Law |

Our laws seek to recognize and respect both religious freedom and civil rights. However, these two important legal traditions tend to duel with one another when the desire to protect civil rights overlaps with, or is inconsistent with, the desire to freely practice one’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

In 2012 the Supreme Court sought to strike a balance, and issued a ruling that generally protects religious organizations, and the schools they run, from federal discrimination lawsuits brought by employees who perform a “ministerial” function. The ministerial exception was born out of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise of Religion Clause. The Court reasoned that allowing such suits would invite improper government interference in a religious institution’s internal affairs. “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister,” noted the Supreme Court eight years ago, “interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”

However, since that time there has been much debate about how to apply the “ministerial” exception. For example, to what employee positions does it apply? Is formal religious training required before it could be invoked? How does it apply to employees who spend only a portion of time doing “ministerial” work? Recently, the Supreme Court weighed back into this debate, and issued a ruling that significantly expands the scope of the ministerial exception.

In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Supreme Court focused on two Catholic schools that used the ministerial exception to justify termination of two of its teachers. One of the teachers alleged her employment was terminated after requesting medical leave for cancer treatment (invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act). The second teacher alleged that her employment was terminated because of her age (invoking the Age Discrimination in Employment Act).

In response, the schools asserted that because the teachers engaged in some religious functions, such as engaging in religious instruction for approximately 30 minutes each day, that the ministerial exception applied, and that the discrimination laws did not apply. The Supreme Court agreed with the schools and held that because the teachers engaged in some religious activity with their students, such as instruction and engaging in worship, the ministerial exception applied. In coming to that conclusion, the Court focused on the employees’ religious duties, not their titles, or even the majority of their responsibilities. Essentially, because both teachers “performed vital religious duties” that reinforced the schools’ religious missions, the exception applied.

The case illustrates the complexity of resolving legal issues to ensure a lawful work environment when the need to safeguard religious freedom faces off with the need to protect civil rights.

Because of this, the Employment Law Group at Quinlivan & Hughes invites religious organizations, and employers who desire to operate their business under sincerely held religious beliefs, to consult with us to help navigate the interplay between religious beliefs and civil rights, and how to properly respect and apply both in the workplace. You can reach us at 320-200-4928 or contact us online.

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