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SCOTUS Reinforces “Ministerial Exception” in Employment Disputes Involving Religious Institutions


SCOTUS Reinforces “Ministerial Exception” in Employment Disputes Involving Religious Institutions

July 9, 2020
Caroline J. Berdzik

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. Supreme Court has expanded the application of the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses to employment decisions made by religious institutions

  • The court held that the “ministerial exception” previously espoused in Hosanna-Tabor forecloses certain employment-discrimination claims brought against religious organizations

  • Going forward, application of the “ministerial exception” will depend on whether the employee’s role involves important religious functions central to promoting the institution’s core religious mission, regardless of job titles and academic training


On July 8, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its second influential employment law decision in as many months when revisiting the application of the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses to employment decisions made by religious institutions. The issue arose out of two cases from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel. The court held, in a 7-2 decision, that the “ministerial exception” previously espoused in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC forecloses certain employment-discrimination claims brought against religious organizations. Additionally, the court reiterated that the factors analyzed and relied upon in Hosanna-Tabor were not a rigid formula to be adopted and applied in all employment-discrimination claims involving religious institutions.

Both cases involved employment discrimination claims filed by elementary teachers at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. As teachers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, both teachers were considered catechists (i.e., teachers of religions); taught all subjects, including religion; took religious education courses at the schools’ request; worshipped with their students; and signed employment agreements making clear that the teachers’ duties were to be performed in accordance with the schools’ missions to develop and promote Catholic faith and morals.

Morrissey-Berru filed a complaint of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging she was demoted from full-time to part-time and that her contract was not renewed based on her age and the school’s desire to replace her with a younger teacher. Biel filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging that her contract was not renewed because she requested a leave of absence for breast cancer treatment. The trial courts in both cases granted summary judgment in favor of the Catholic schools relying on the reasoning of Hosanna-Tabor in finding that the “ministerial exception” applied. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned those rulings by applying what the court said was a “rigid test [that] produced a distorted analysis.”

The opinion, authored by Justice Alito, reiterated the court’s First Amendment jurisprudence and reasoning followed in Hosanna-Tabor that while religious institutions are not generally immune from secular laws, the First Amendment “[protects] their autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission. And a component of this autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.”

Following the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, courts of appeals uniformly recognized the existence of the “ministerial exception” that allowed for religious groups to avoid state intrusion into the internal governance of their institutions that would deprive the religious institution control over selecting those who would best promote its beliefs. Courts have held that such infringement would violate both the Free Exercise Clause that protects a religious institution’s right to shape its own faith and mission and the Establishment Clause that prohibits state involvement in ecclesiastical decisions. It was not until the unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor in 2012 that the Supreme Court spoke on the issue. In Hosanna-Tabor, the court relied upon what it found were four key factors in whether the “ministerial exception” applied: (1) the employee’s job title contained the word “minister,” a title within the church that suggested an important position of trust; (2) the employee had a significant degree of religious training; (3) the employee held herself out as a minister and claimed tax benefits related to her position; and, (4) the employee’s job duties evidenced a role in promulgating the church’s mission.

Despite the court’s admonition that those factors were not a “rigid formula,” the Ninth Circuit treated them as requirements to be weighed against one another to determine whether the exception applies. The court stated the Ninth Circuit gave undue significance to the facts that Morrissey-Berru and Biel did not hold clerical titles and did not have the same level of religious training as the employee in Hosanna-Tabor. Before the court, both employees argued that in order for the exception to apply courts should first determine whether the first three factors relied upon in Hosanna-Tabor are met, then ask whether the employee performed a religious function. The court’s majority was neither persuaded by the Ninth Circuit’s rigid application of the Hosanna-Tabor framework nor moved by the teachers’ arguments to take that rigid application even further.

In order to determine whether the exception applied the court stated that “a variety of factors may be important,” but “[w]hat matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.” The court explicitly elaborated on and clarified that “implicit in [its] decision in Hosanna-Tabor was a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.” Applying that understanding—and relying on the evidence that as Catholic elementary school teachers both Morrissey-Berru and Biel were obligated and expected to promote the Catholic faith to their students—the court held that both teachers qualified for the “ministerial exception.” Finally, the court dismissed any argument that a rigid formula be adopted because “[w]hen a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”

Following this ruling, religious institutions maintain a shield of protection from employment discrimination claims. In essence, the court did not stray at all from its holding in Hosanna-Tabor, and reiterated that the framework espoused in Hosanna-Tabor will not be applied rigidly. However, the court certainly signaled that going forward in order to qualify for the “ministerial exception,” significant weight should be given not to job titles and academic training, but to the factor that the duties being performed by an employee of a religious institution are important religious functions central to promoting that institution’s core religious mission.

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