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Supreme Court affirms ministerial exception to discrimination suits

A unanimous Supreme Court today confirmed what a number of Courts of Appeal have held over the years: the First Amendment prohibits certain employees of Church organizations from suing for employment discrimination.

Cheryl Perich worked for Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School as a teacher. Because she had completed certain academic requirements, she was classified by the school as a “Minister of Religion, Commissioned”. In 2004 Perich developed narcolepsy and was unable to teach; when she was able to return, the school advised her that it had filled her position. It eventually sent her a letter of termination, causing Perich to sue for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Supreme Court first reviewed the historical context in which the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise clauses had been drafted, and reaffirmed several earlier decisions stating that it is impermissible for the government to contradict a church’s determination of who can act as its ministers. It then considered whether such a “ministerial exception” should apply to claims of employment discrimination, and agreed with several lower courts that it should. The First Amendment prohibits the government from punishing a church (through application of law) for discriminating in the selection of its ministers because that would deprive the church of control over the selection of who will personify its beliefs.

This decision is not surprising given the number of lower courts that had resolved the issue in the same manner. The Court refused to give any broad guidance on how to determine whether a particular employee is a “minister”, leaving that issue for another day.

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