Supreme Court Broadens Ministerial Exception to Employment Discrimination Claims


Faith-Based Organizations


July 8, 2020


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Employees classified under the “ministerial exception” because they perform religious functions within their job may be precluded from making employment discrimination claims against the religious entities that employ them. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the exception analysis into a review of all the circumstances, rather than limiting it to a specific test.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court used four factors to determine whether an employee’s role is ministerial: (1) formal job position title, (2) substance of the position based on the title, (3) the employee’s use of the title, and (4) the religious functions the employee performed for the religious institution. In Our Lady, the 9th Circuit stated that all four factors must be met to qualify for the exemption. Upon review, the Supreme Court said that these four factors were not meant to be a “rigid formula,” and that courts should “take all relevant circumstances into account.”

There, employee teachers taught academics and religion at Catholic schools to elementary-aged children and attended religious services with the children. The teachers were subsequently terminated based on alleged poor performance, and they brought discrimination suits against their employers. The Court considered the teachers’ actual duties and the fact that the schools “expressly saw [them] as playing a vital part in carrying out the mission of the church” in ultimately stating that they qualified for the exception. The fact that they did not have a “minister” job title was not determinative.

Action Items

  1. Have job descriptions updated to reflect the actual duties of employees.
  2. Review this ruling with legal counsel for further guidance.
  3. Subscribers can call our HR On-Call Hotline at (888) 378-2456 for further assistance.

Disclaimer: This document is designed to provide general information and guidance concerning employment-related issues. It is presented with the understanding that ManagEase is not engaged in rendering any legal opinions. If a legal opinion is needed, please contact the services of your own legal adviser.

© 2020 ManagEase

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