US Supreme Court affirms a broader interpretation of the ministerial exception

US Supreme Court broadens interpretation of the ministerial exception for religious employers

United States Publication July 2020

The First Amendment has long protected religious institutions' right to decide for themselves matters of church government and those of faith and doctrine. Rooted in this principle, the Supreme Court first held in 2012 in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171, 188 (2012), that the First Amendment's Religion Clauses foreclose certain employment discrimination claims brought against religious organizations. Specifically, the Court held that the First Amendment barred an employment discrimination claim brought by an elementary school teacher who held the role of "Minister of Religion, Commissioned." Id. Nearly a decade later, the Supreme Court has affirmed its position that "courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions." Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. Morrissey-Berru St. James Sch. v. Biel, No. 19-267, 2020 WL 3808420 (U.S. July 8, 2020).

The Supreme Court's decision

In the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Supreme Court considered whether two elementary school teachers could bring employment discrimination claims against their Catholic school employers. At the lower level, the Ninth Circuit held that both individuals fell outside the "ministerial exception" because they did not hold the formal title of "minister" and had less religious training than the plaintiff in Hosanna-TaborId. at *5, *7.

The Supreme Court overturned both Ninth Circuit decisions and held that both elementary school teachers qualified under the "ministerial exception" and were thus barred from bringing an employment discrimination claim against their religious employer. Id. at *12. The Court specifically found that both teachers, despite not holding the title of "minister," performed vital religious duties. Id. In particular, they were entrusted with educating their students in the faith, were expected to guide their students by word and deed in accordance with the faith, and played a vital role in carrying out the church's mission. Id. at *12-13. Both teachers also prayed and attended church with their students. Id.

In its holding, the Supreme Court specifically rejected the Ninth Circuit's "checklist" approach. Id. at *12. The Supreme Court further rejected the Ninth Circuit's emphasis on titles and held that the exception was not limited to individuals with the formal title of "minister." Id. at *10, *13. Contrary to the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court did not hold that Hosanna-Tabor set a benchmark standard for religious qualifications and, instead, emphasized that formal religious training must be evaluated in light of the students' age and the judgment of the religious institution. Id. at *13. Finally, the Court rejected Respondent's argument that an employee must be a practicing member of the religion to fall within the exception.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court instructed courts to consider all relevant circumstances to determine whether each position implicates the ministerial exception's fundamental purpose. Id. By refusing to adopt a rigid approach, the Supreme Court has allowed for a broader interpretation of the exception beyond employees who hold the title of minister.

Key takeaways

The Supreme Court's decision provides the following key takeaways for religious employers:

  • The factual circumstances in Hosanna-Tabor, while instructive, are not binding nor inflexible.
  • There is no "rigid formula" for deciding when the "ministerial exception" applies. Instead, all relevant circumstances must be considered on a position-by-position basis.
  • In particular, the absence of a "minister" position title or specific religious training or duties does not mean the ministerial exception will not apply. We could see religious employers begin to assert the exception against a broader array of employees.
  • In accordance with the First Amendment, significant discretion will be given to the religious employer's judgment and assessment of the position. 


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