On January 11, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision interpreting the bounds of the “ministerial exception” to civil rights claims. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2012). Lower courts have generally held that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar discrimination suits brought by ministers against churches. The question in Hosanna-Tabor was whether the ministerial exception applied not simply to religious leaders, but also to a teacher at a religious elementary school.
Cheryl Perich was a Called Teacher and designated as a commissioned minister. “Called” teachers are regarded as having been called to their vocation by God. She taught secular subjects and a religion class, led her students in daily prayer and devotional exercises, took her students to a weekly school-wide chapel service, and led the chapel service twice a year.
Perich developed narcolepsy and began the 2004-2005 school year on disability leave. Her request to return to work was denied and she was asked to resign. Perich refused and was terminated. She filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming disability discrimination. Hosanna-Tabor invoked the “ministerial exception,” arguing that Perich’s lawsuit was barred by the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court agreed, concluding that Perich fell within the meaning of the ministerial exception. The Court said the exception was not limited to just the head of a religious congregation. Rather than adopting a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister, the Court looked at the circumstances of Perich’s employment. Hosanna-Tabor held Perich out as a minister, with a role distinct from that of its other members. However, that title did not automatically ensure the exception. Perich also held herself out as a minister and her job duties reflected a role conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission. As a source of religious instruction, Perich played an important part in transmitting the Lutheran faith.