In a significant religious freedom decision, the United States Supreme Court unanimously recognized a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws in January of this year. The “ministerial exception” had been recognized by the lower courts but, until this recent decision, it had not been officially sanctioned by the Supreme Court. In its decision, the Court found that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment preclude “ministers” from asserting employment discrimination claims against their churches.
In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, 132 S. Ct. 694, 181 L. Ed. 2d 650, 114 FEP Cases 129, 25 AD Cases 1057 (2012), the Court addressed the claims of Cheryl Perich (“Perich”), a teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School (the “Church”), which is a member of the Lutheran Church. Perich claimed that the Church terminated her because of her disability–narcolepsy–in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as in retaliation for her threat to pursue a disability discrimination claim. The Church argued that Perich lost her job because she violated its religious doctrine by failing to resolve her problems with the school using its internal procedures as opposed to bringing litigation.
In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court held that a church’s decisions regarding the firing of religious employees are protected from the regulation of anti-discrimination laws by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion. The decision did not reach the question of exactly which church employees qualify for the “ministerial exception.” Perich was a teacher in a church school—she taught religious and well as secular subjects–and the court held that the ministerial exception applied to her termination. Yet there are numerous other workers at churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions who likely would not qualify for the ministerial exception.
Larry Crain, a faculty member of the Church Law Institute, discussed the case recently in The Tennessean. Mr. Crain heralded the decision as a signal that all religious groups are free to choose leaders with reference to their beliefs and doctrines, rather than being constrained by federal anti-discrimination laws. Other commentators expressed concerns that the decision meant that clergy could be fired for discriminatory reasons without recourse.
Regardless of where you come down on this issue, the decision is an important one for churches and other religious organizations to understand. While the decision did not spell out which employees are affected by the ministerial exception and which ones aren’t, organizations can probably safely look to Justice Alito’s separate opinion for guidance. Justice Alito argued that the exception should be tailored to an employee “who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.” While this language is not an official “test” set out in the opinion, it would be sensible to use it as a guide in making employment decisions about employees that may otherwise be in a protected class. The closer the employee is to meeting this description, the more likely a court would be to find that the employee’s termination is protected by the ministerial exception
By: Paige Waldrop Mills
Churches are filled with creative people that are…well….creating. Ministers are writing sermons and books, music leaders are writing beautiful choruses, graphics people and web designers are illustrating messages and the website with fantastic and sophisticated creations. These items that are created as the church fulfills its great commission are works of intellectual property. Creative works like the ones described above are subject to copyright law. Who owns this intellectual property? The Church or the individual that created it?
By Larry L. Crain
On March 27, 2012, I attended the oral argument at the United States Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the mandate provision in the Affordable Care Act that would require virtually all U.S. citizens to purchase a health care policy. As a long time student of the constitution, it was intellectually riveting to see the rapid fire questions from the justices and the reaction of skilled advocates on both sides of this issue as they tried to use the force of logic to dislodge a justice from his or her seeming unswerving position.
By: Paige Waldrop Mills
The entire country has been talking about the Trayvon Martin Case. I am starting to see numerous instances of churches joining the conversation. This case has been heart-breaking on so many levels, no matter your position on the social issues that are implicated. Whether you believe Zimmerman acted in self-defense or created a situation where someone’s beloved son was killed while minding his own business, carrying a Snapple and some Skittles, there is no question that many lives have been destroyed, careers ruined, and, most tragic by far, a child with a promising future is dead. It is not for me to decide what happened in this case because I wasn’t there and I don’t know. I have friends with different views on Zimmerman’s actions and motives, but all I can think about is Trayvon’s parents, and the parents of other young African-American boys or men, who live in fear that the same thing could happen to their child. I have no answers and nothing but my heart-felt sympathies to offer to these families.
By: Paige Waldrop Mills
Evangelists Joel and Victoria Osteen get a temporary reprieve in the copyright suit brought against them by writer of the song “Signaling Through the Flames,” courtesy of every defendant’s best friends, Twobley and Iqbal. The Texas district court granted their motion to dismiss because the plaintiffs failed to allege facts showing that the Osteens had a financial stake in the infringing activity and personally supervised the infringing conduct. The plaintiff was given leave to amend so the Osteens will undoubtedly have to face this issue again.
The faculty at the Church Law Institute will be writing on legal issues that affect churches and other non-profits. Please sign up to receive email or RSS notifications of new posts. We’d also love to hear from you if you have specific questions. We will periodically take questions from our readers, make the facts of the question universal enough to apply to a wide variety of churches or organizations, and answer them. Because we want to be sure we are addressing the questions that are important to you, please let us know what you want to learn more about. We look forward to getting to know you as we help your church avoid the obstacles that could interfere with its goals, work, and missions.