SCOTUS: Religious groups nearly exempt from job-bias laws

Thumbnail image for Supreme Court.jpgYesterday, in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar employment-discrimination lawsuits by ministers against their churches. More on this decision and some helpful reminders for private-sector employers after the jump

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The church fires a minister who threatens to sue under the ADA.

Cheryl Perich, a commissioner minister at Hosana-Tabor, developed narcolepsy and took disability leave. When Perich notified her employer that she was ready to return, she was told that the church had already hired a replacement. The school also expressed concern about Perich’s ability to return to work. After much back and forth, Perich informed the school that she had contacted a lawyer and was prepared to assert her legal rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The church subsequently fired her for insubordination. Perich then filed a Charge of Discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC then brought suit on Perich’s behalf alleging that she had been fired in retaliation for threatening to sue under the ADA.

The ministerial exception applies to religious groups.

On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed that the federal government would have no role in employment decisions of a religious group. Specifically, the Free Exercise Clause “protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.” Additionally, giving the state “the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.”

The EEOC and Perich unsuccessfully argued that Supreme Court precedent precluded recognition of a so-called “ministerial exception.” However, the Supreme Court distinguished this prior decision, which involved a Native American Church and the ingestion of peyote, because “a church’s selection of its ministers is unlike an individual’s ingestion of peyote.” The latter involved government regulation of “outward physical acts,” whereas Hosana-Tabor involved an internal decision.

Finally, the Supreme Court emphasized that the ministerial exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation. Although it declined to adopt a bright-line rule as to who may qualify as a minister. Suffice it to say, Perich did.

The ministerial exception applies to religious groups.

No. That header is not a typo. It’s a reminder that private businesses cannot retaliate against employees who threaten to bring lawsuits under the ADA. Rather, as I’ve discussed many times before, employers who receive complaints concerning alleged violations of anti-harassment policies or laws, should investigate them and take action that is reasonably designed to end the harassment/discrimination. In the ADA context, employers are also tasked with engaging in an interactive dialogue with disabled employees who request a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of their job. Check out Monday’s post for more on that.

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