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Ministerial Exception' Exempts Religious Employers

Federal, state and local employment discrimination laws may not apply to religious institutions and their employees who play some role in disseminating the employer's religious message.

August 13, 2012
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IMPACT: Federal, state and local employment discrimination laws may not apply to religious institutions and their employees who play some role in disseminating the employer's religious message.

Cheryl Perich was a teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School. Although her job duties mostly included teaching nonreligious subjects, she also taught a religion course, attended chapel and led her class in prayer.

In 2004, Perich became ill. When she was cleared to return to work, the school determined that her health did not permit her to return, hired a replacement and told her to resign.

Perich threatened to sue the school, claiming that the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Perich was fired and told that her threat to sue violated a Lutheran religious tenet that members of the faith should internally resolve their arguments. Perich filed charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming retaliation under the ADA, and the EEOC sued the school.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that Perich's claim was barred by the "ministerial exception" to federal workplace discrimination law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed, holding that while there is such an exception, Perich was not a "minister" because she was not primarily involved in teaching the employer's religious faith and had no role in church governance.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 6th Circuit's ruling and held that it is "impermissible for the government to contradict a church's determination of who can act as its ministers."

The court said 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. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs." Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC 10-553 (Jan. 11, 2012).

James E. Hall, Mark T. Kobata and Marty Denis are partners in the law firm of Barlow, Kobata & Denis, with offices in Los Angeles and Chicago. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

Workforce Management, August 2012, p. 12 -- Subscribe Now!

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