U.S. Supreme Court Strongly Affirms Ministerial Exception to Employment Statutes

Posted On July 8, 2020

On July 8, 2020, in a 7-2 ruling, the United States Supreme Court gave a strong endorsement of religious organizations’ freedom to choose those who will serve as ministers of the faith. In Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment insulate religious organization from secular review of decisions to hire, fire, and discipline those who teach the faith. The Court rejected the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s very rigid analysis of such things ministerial title and formal religious education, and instead called for courts to look at what the employee does. Justice Alito wrote for the majority and stated:

When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of education 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.

Importantly, the Court held that judges simply have no warrant to second-guess the schools’ judgment of who should, and should not hold positions as teachers in religious schools. Neither does the First Amendment permit judges to impose their own credentialing requirements for teachers of the faith. Religious organizations must be left free to make determinations both in matters of faith and doctrine and to decide matters of church governance – including whom to retain as school teachers.

Justice Thomas and Justice Gorsuch concurred in the result entirely. However, they wrote separately, to assert that courts must grant broad deference to religious organizations’ good-faith claims that an employee’s position is ministerial. They wrote that what qualifies as “ministerial” is an inherently theological question that cannot be resolved by civil courts through legal analysis. The concurrence posits that religious organizations must be free to shape their own faith and mission without judicial meddling.

The two cases on appeal involved adverse employment decisions regarding Catholic school teachers from Los Angeles. One was an elementary school teacher, who taught all subjects and who took religious education courses at the school’s request. She led her students in prayer and assisted the students in preparation for sacraments, religious services, and other religious activities though she did not hold herself out to the public as a minister. The other had little formal religious education, though she, too, taught religion classes. Both teachers’ contracts of employment contained requirements that teachers serve as “models of faith life;” “exemplify the teachings of Jesus Christ;” and “integrate Catholic though and principles into secular subjects.” Both were terminated from their positions and brought suit under federal employment laws challenging that determination.