The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that the “ministerial exception” that bars some employment discrimination claims against religious institutions, also bars such claims by elementary school teachers at private Catholic schools. The case further clarifies an exception that came to prominence back in 2012 and expands the reach of the exception. I noted then that the Court was taking a fairly broad approach. Eight years later, that broad approach is playing out as expected.
Thus, the key takeaway from today’s decision? You need not have the title of “minister” to fall within the exception.
In the majority’s 7-2 decision, this key summary stands out:
The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission. Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.
In determining whether the ministerial exception applies, “a variety of factors may be important”. But what matters, according to the court isn’t titles, but “what an employee does”.
And an elementary school teacher — responsible for “providing instruction in all subjects, including religion,” and “members of the school staff who were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the faith” — more than meets that exception, according to the court.
No “rigid formula” is needed and the court said it is “sufficient” to just decide the cases before it. So those hoping for further guidance are going to have to dig a bit deeper to draw out a general rule. That being said, it seems quite clear that many teachers at parochial schools will be covered by this exception — meaning no discrimination lawsuits will be permitted against them, at least on a variety of grounds.
Connecticut has adopted a similar exception in a 2011 case that I also covered here. There is no reason to think that a Connecticut court looking at this issue under state law would come to a different conclusion than the U.S. Supreme Court today.