Supreme Court Addresses Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment

In Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC, Cheryl Perich was a teacher for a Lutheran organization, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church, in a kindergarten through eighth grade school that the church operated.  Some teachers, such as Perich, have completed a specific training course at a Lutheran college and are deemed to be “called” teachers, and are designated as “commissioned ministers.”  Other teachers taught under contract, in the same way that public school teachers do.  Most classes were secular, but one class a day was on religious studies.  In 2004, Perich developed severe narcolepsy and could not work for several months.  She eventually obtained a medical note to return to work, but the school terminated her.  The EEOC filed suit on her behalf under theADA.  The trial court dismissed the case based on the “ministerial exception,” but the Sixth Circuit reversed.  While all circuits had recognized the exception, they differed to some degree on its exact scope, and the Supreme Court had yet to address the issue.

The Court unanimously ruled for the Church, with Chief Justice Roberts writing the main opinion.  The Court agreed that there was a ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws based on the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, and that it applied here.  Like the circuit courts, the Court held that the exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation.  The Court declined “to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.”  Instead, the Court looked to the title given to Perich, the substance reflected in the title, her own use of the title, and the important religious functions she performed for the Church.  The Sixth Circuit erred in focusing on the facts that lay teachers at the school occasionally performed the same religious duties as Perich and that Perich had many secular duties in addition to her religious ones.  The Court thus applied a relatively robust view of the exception, though it is unclear if it changes the law much in the Fourth Circuit.  See, e.g., EEOC v. Roman Catholic Diocese, 213 F.3d 795 (4th Cir. 2000) (holding that exception applied to employee who was the Director of Music Ministry and a part-time music teacher).