Supreme Court Recognizes "Ministerial Exception" to Employment Decisions

Thursday, January 26, 2012

In a case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al., the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision recognized a ministerial exception that disallows application of federal employment discrimination laws to religious institutions' personnel decisions with respect to those employees holding positions with religious duties.  

While numerous appeals courts and state courts had previously declared that a "ministerial exception" exists with respect to employment-discrimination laws rooted in the First Amendment's clauses protecting religious freedom. The Court's ruling is the first in which the Supreme Court formally recognized the "ministerial exception" as legal doctrine.

The Supreme Court in a decision written by Chief Justice Roberts held that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar suits brought on behalf of ministers against their churches, claiming termination in violation of employment discrimination laws.  The Court found that requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Any such requirement interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions. The Court limited its decision only to situations involving a minister.  The Court specifically did not express a view on other types of suits.  

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