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July 2020

U.S. Supreme Court Refines Framework for Religious Employers


The United States Supreme Court has recently taken to refining the framework of the ministerial exception, a decades-old legal doctrine that shields religious employers from certain workers' claims by blocking courts from hearing the cases, as set forth in the 2012 case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.  

The court in Hosanna-Tabor turned its analysis of the ministerial exception on the workers’ job title, education, and job duties. In the suits against two Catholic schools by the elementary school teachers, the Ninth Circuit, following Hosanna-Tabor, narrowly focused its analysis on the job title the school teachers held. Unlike in Hosanna-Tabor, the teacher’s title did not include "minister" and the Ninth Circuit concluded the ministerial exception did not apply.

However this week, in a 7-2 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court determined "the Ninth Circuit mistakenly treated the circumstances the court found relevant in Hosanna-Tabor as a checklist of items to be assessed and weighed against each other," the high court said. "That rigid test produced a distorted analysis."

The U.S. Supreme Court determined that the primary consideration in any analysis of whether the ministerial exception applies should be the tasks a worker actually performs, and here the court found the two workers at issue performed "vital religious duties" such that the exception applied to their lawsuits. "When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school's independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow," as stated by the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Potential Impact

This application may extend further than just a school with a religious mission, but may encompass a broader range of employees who work for any religiously affiliated organizations. This will provide these other religious affiliated employers with the same protection against discrimination suits.

Furthermore, this ruling may allow religious affiliated employers to assert the ministerial exception against a wide range of employees, focusing on the employees "vital religious duties" regardless of whether the employee has the job title of "ministers." 

Law Clerk Minney Thind contributed to this publication. 

Employment Law

Brandon D. Saxon

Employment Law