Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion. On the other hand, the First Amendment prohibits Congress from enacting laws which interfere with how churches govern themselves. When a church makes an employment decision based on religion which negatively impacts one of its employees, does that church then violate the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VII? Today’s Long Island employment law blog explores the ministerial exception as elaborated on by the Supreme Court of the United States in the Our Lady of Guadalupe decision.
In 2012, the Supreme Court decided a case, Hosanna-Tabor. In that case, the country’s highest court applied a legal doctrine called the ministerial exception. The ministerial exception generally says that church employees who perform jobs which relate to religious responsibilities are exempt from coverage under anti-discrimination laws. For example, if a Catholic school teacher was responsible for teaching students math, but was also responsible for teaching bible studies, the teacher would likely not be protected by anti-discrimination laws because of the ministerial exemption. So, if the teacher was not married, but became pregnant, the church could lawfully terminate the teacher if it believes the teacher violated religious tenets.
Turning to the Our Lady of Guadalupe case, the decision concerns two cases which were heard and decided at the same time. In both cases, the plaintiffs were teachers at religious schools who had employment contracts with the school. Each teacher taught general elementary education classes, but both plaintiffs were charged with providing some religious instruction and leading prayer. Ultimately, each school terminated the respective teacher. One teacher alleged age discrimination, the other alleged disability discrimination. After the parties litigated whether the ministerial exception barred the claims, the cases reached the Supreme Court.