Employment Rights Of “Ministerial” Employees

This week the United States Supreme Court issued an important decision regarding the employment rights of ministers.  The case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, concerned application of the “ministerial exception” to many employment laws.  The Supreme Court had not previously recognized the exception and did so for the first time in Hosanna-Tabor.

As I’ve discussed throughout this website and blog, certain employment discrimination laws authorize employees who have been wrongfully terminated to sue their employers for reinstatement and damages. The question presented by the “ministerial exception” is whether the First Amendment’s religious clauses bar such an action when the employer is a religious group and the employee is one of the group’s ministers.

Under the ministerial exception, the First Amendment prevents the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.  The exception applies only to suits by or on behalf of ministers themselves.  The purpose of the exception is not to safeguard a church’s decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason. The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister for a church will be the church’s alone.  Thus, church ministers forfeit many state and federal employment rights when they assume the ministry.

The ministerial exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation.  Nor is there a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.  Instead, courts must consider all the circumstances of the person’s employment in deciding whether that person qualifies as a ministerial employee.  Such considerations might be the employee’s formal title given by the church, the substance reflected in that title, the employee’s own use of that title, and the religious functions the employee performed for the church.  The employee’s title, by itself, does not automatically ensure coverage under the ministerial exception, but the fact that an employee has been ordained or commissioned as a minister is relevant, as is the fact that significant religious training and a recognized religious mission underlie the description of the employee’s position.  Moreover, the amount of time an employee spends on particular activities is relevant in assessing that employee’s status, but that factor cannot be considered in isolation, without regard to the nature of the religious functions performed and the other considerations discussed above.

The Supreme Court declined to decide whether the ministerial exception was limited to employment matters, or whether the exception extended to other, more general types of legal claims that are not necessarily traditional “employment” suits.  So it is possible that a minister will have other legal rights against the minister’s employer that are outside the scope of and not affected by the ministerial exception.

Please feel free to give me a call if you have an employment law matter that you’d like to discuss.  I’ll be happy to see if I can give you a hand.

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