In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a church’s right under the First Amendment to fire an employee who was a minister despite federal antidiscrimination laws. The case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, marks the first time the Supreme Court has recognized the First Amendment-based ministerial exception to antidiscrimination laws. Federal appeals courts had recognized the exception but not the high court — until now. The exception is rooted in the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom and ensures that churches and other religious groups can choose their own ministers as they see fit.
The case involved Cheryl Perich, a teacher employed by a congregation of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod at its church school. The school employed two classes of teachers: (1) “called” teachers, who completed a course of religious study and attained the title of “minister of religion, commissioned,” and (2) lay teachers, who had no religious training and moreover didn’t have to be Lutheran. Perich, as a called teacher, taught a religion class, led students in daily prayer, took them to chapel services, occasionally led chapel services, and taught secular subjects.
After developing narcolepsy and spending half of a school year on disability, Perich tried to return to her job. The school told her it had already brought in a lay teacher and asked her to resign in exchange for continued contribution toward health benefits. She refused and stated she had talked with a lawyer about her legal rights. The congregation rescinded her “call” and fired her.
Perich filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claiming violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The EEOC backed her up, alleging that the church illegally fired her in retaliation for asserting her ADA rights. The church maintained its actions were legal under the First Amendment’s ministerial exception to antidiscrimination laws. The exception protects religious groups from antidiscrimination claims based on their employment relationship with ministers. The exception protects the religious institution’s right to shape its faith and mission through its choice of ministers and bars the government from intruding in those decisions.
The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in Perich’s favor, finding that the ministerial exception didn’t apply because she didn’t qualify as a minister. The Supreme Court disagreed, saying she was a minister because of several factors: The church considered her a minister, she had undertaken significant religious study and was formally commissioned, she held herself out as a minister, and her job duties as a religious instructor carried out the church’s mission to transmit the faith. The Court didn’t “adopt a rigid formula” for determining whether someone is a minister and subject to the ministerial exception.
The High Court said that while Perich’s title alone didn’t make her a minister, her commission was relevant to the issue and the Sixth Circuit should have considered it. The Court also thought the lower court made too much of Perich’s teaching of secular subjects and of the fact that lay teachers would fill in for called teachers in religious instruction if called teachers weren’t available.