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Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC 
Ministerial exception bars minister's termination suit against church. 

Decided January 11, 2012 [Opinion full text]

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.

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.)

Case below:  EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School (6th Cir 03/09/2010) 
Official docket sheet 
Certiorari granted: March 28, 2011. 
Oral argument:  October 5, 2011. [Transcript of argument]

Question presented in petition for certiorari:   

The federal courts of appeals have long recognized the "ministerial exception," a First Amendment doctrine that bars most employment-related lawsuits brought against religious organizations by employees performing religious functions. The circuits are in complete agreement about the core applications of this doctrine to pastors, priests, and rabbis. But they are evenly divided over the boundaries of the ministerial exception when applied to other employees. The question presented is: 

Whether the ministerial exception applies to a teacher at a religious elementary school who teaches the full secular curriculum, but also teaches daily religion classes, is a commissioned minister, and regularly leads students in prayer and worship. 

Briefs on the merits: 

Certiorari Documents: 


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