Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC: Understanding the Ministerial Exception

Thanks to a recent Supreme Court case (Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC) you may have been hearing a lot about the “ministerial exception” and been wondering what it’s really about.

Ministerial exception is a provision that is intended to protect the freedom of religious institutions to hire and fire spiritual leaders and teachers as they choose, not according to anti-discrimination laws (like Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act).  For example, the government can’t say that Catholic churches must hire women as priests – whereas any other institution would face litigation for refusing to hire women for a position for which they were otherwise qualified.
 
In this most recent case, the Supreme Court addressed the question: who qualifies as a minister? A tough question when you consider the vast diversity within and among traditions. Prior to this ruling, many people employed by religious organizations were in limbo when it came to their rights in the workplace. In a matter of speaking, the Supreme Court also addressed the question: how far does a religious institution’s freedom to discriminate go?
 
Cheryl Perich was hired as a teacher at a Lutheran school in Michigan to teach mostly secular courses and one class on religious education. Her religious duties consumed about 45 minutes of each workday and the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects. In 2004, Ms. Perich got sick and missed a term teaching. The school asked her to resign, but she refused and sued the school when she was fired – believing that she would be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
 
However, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that a “ministerial exception” applied to a church employee, Ms. Cheryl Perich, who had “a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission.”  The 45 minutes Ms. Perich spent teaching religion qualified her as a “called” teacher whom the school considered a minister.
 
The decision gave only limited guidance how these issues could be determined in the future. In Ms. Perich’s brief, Ms. Perich warned that broadening this definition to include employees like her would allow a religious organization to fire a teacher for reporting sexual abuse of a student to the government, for example.
 
But the Chief Justice wrote: “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important, but so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”
 
For some, it’s a triumph for religious freedom. For others, it’s a loop hole for discrimination. What are your thoughts on this decision? Should religious institutions operate under their own law? Or should government anti-discrimination laws reign over all institutions – religious or not?