TOPICS > Politics

Supreme Court Upholds ‘Ministerial Exception’ From Anti-Bias Laws

January 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Constitution provides ministers an exemption to anti-discrimination laws. Margaret Warner discusses the implications of the court's recognition of a "ministerial exception" with The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, The Supreme Court rules on employment discrimination in religious schools.

Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: The case involved a teacher with part-time religious duties at a Lutheran Church-run school who claimed employment discrimination after she was fired.

Today, the justices in a unanimous ruling said her church employer is protected from such lawsuits. It was the first time the high court has upheld the so-called ministerial exception to anti-discrimination laws.

Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal joins us now, as always, to walk us through today’s decision.

Marcia, welcome back.

He said, if you impose an unwanted minister on a religious organization, that violates the free exercise clause which protects churches' right to shape their faith through their hiring decisions.Marcia Coyle, The National Law Journal

So, what’s the story behind this case?

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: Well, Cheryl Perich, as you said, was teaching at a Lutheran Church school in Michigan. She taught secular subjects, but she also took special training there in order — religious training in order to get the designation “a called teacher.”

This — as part of her duties…

MARGARET WARNER: Called teacher or minister?

MARCIA COYLE: A called teacher.

But as part of her duties, she would lead the students in prayer. She also might take them to the church for services. But many of the lay-teachers at the school also did the same thing. She needed a leave of absence in order to get treatment for narcolepsy. And when she and her doctor felt she was ready to return to teaching, she approached the school, and she was basically told that, in the interim, they had hired someone else and that there wouldn’t be a place for her.

She still showed up when she thought her leave was over, and she was told that she would be fired unless she resigned. She refused to resign, and she was fired. And she felt that this was a violation of the job bias law known as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

She went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed the suit on her behalf, and she joined that suit. She lost in the lower court. But when she appealed, she did win, because the court found that, despite what’s called the “ministerial exception,” she did not have ministerial functions at the school.

MARGARET WARNER: And this, as I recall — because you came on the program to talk about in the October — this had provoked quite a lively argument for a case that ends up being unanimous.

MARCIA COYLE: Oh, it did, actually.

And there was there was a lot of concern by some justices that, if the ministerial exception was very broad, it would sweep within it real lay-teachers who didn’t have ministerial or religious duties.

MARGARET WARNER: So, on what basis — and this was Chief Justice Robert’s and his — his written opinion — on what basis did they decide that in fact she did qualify?

MARCIA COYLE: The chief justice said that this exception is grounded in the First Amendment.

He spent a lot of his decision tracing the history of the conflict between government and churches, going all the way back to 1215 and the Magna Carta. And those concerns, he said, were very much in the minds of the framers of the First Amendment.

He said, if you impose an unwanted minister on a religious organization, that violates the free exercise clause which protects churches’ right to shape their faith through their hiring decisions. And he said, also, if you give the state the power to determine who is a minister, you violate the establishment clause, which prohibits government interference in purely church decisions.

MARGARET WARNER: So, the question is, how broad is this? I mean, one, would it apply to teachers who strictly taught secular subjects or someone who worked in the cafeteria? And, two, would it apply to other sorts of discrimination suits, say, based on race or gender?

MARCIA COYLE: The chief justice in his opinion was very explicit that, first, this case deals with employment discrimination, and the decision relates to employment discrimination suits only.

He said the court doesn’t express any views on any other types of suits by religious employees, for example, breach of contract or injuries they may have endured on the job. He also made it very clear that church employees can still bring these suits to federal court, but the ministerial exception is going to be a defense, and the judges will decide whether the claims will go forward.

MARGARET WARNER: So, this court did not say what constitutes a minister?

MARCIA COYLE: No.

He also — he said that, first, it includes more than just the head of a religious organization. But he said the court was reluctant to adopt a rigid formula for deciding who falls within the ministerial exception. He said it was enough for now, since this was the first case they ever had, to look at Cheryl Perich and her circumstances, which he did.

He went through the fact that she was held out by the church as a minister, she held herself out as a minister, and her duties reflected that she was shaping or communicating the faith to the students.

MARGARET WARNER: So, does this suggest there may be more such cases?

MARCIA COYLE: There may well be.

And even though it was a unanimous opinion, it was interesting. There were two separate written opinions, one by Justice Thomas, who, although he agreed the court, felt that courts shouldn’t second-guess a good-faith determination by a religious employer that somebody is a minister.

MARGARET WARNER: Marcia Coyle, National Law Journal, thank you.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.