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Ministerial exception bars minister's termination suit against church
January 11, 2012 by Ross Runkel at LawMemo

The US Supreme Court unanimously held that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar suits brought on behalf of ministers against their churches, claiming termination in violation of employment discrimination laws.

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (US Supreme Ct 01/11/2012)

The church employed Cheryl Perich as a "called" teacher and a commissioned minister. In addition to teaching secular subjects, Perich taught a religion class, led her students in daily prayer and devotional exercises, and took her students to a weekly school-wide chapel service. Perich led the chapel service herself about twice a year. After the church discharged Perich, the EEOC sued claiming the church discharged her in retaliation for threatening to bring a suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The trial court granted summary judgment for the church based on the ministerial exception; the 6th Circuit reversed on the ground that Perich was not a "minister." The Supreme Court reversed.

The Court recognizes a ministerial exception because "Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church."

Perich was a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception. Both the church and Perich held her out as a minister. That title required significant religious training and formal commissioning. Her job duties reflected a role in conveying the church's message and carrying out its mission.

(The Court expressed no view on whether the ministerial exception bars suits other than employment discrimination suits challenging a church's decision to discharge a minister.)

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