In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today gave some teeth to the “ministerial exception” that, in essence, precludes some employees of religious institutions from suing them under federal discrimination laws.
I’ve discussed the exception in various posts over the years here and here. Its been supported in the Second Circuit and by the Connecticut Supreme Court, but until now, the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t spoken directly on the issue. The SCOTUS blog has already posted its recap of the entire case here.
My quick reaction to the decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC (download here), is that the notion of a “ministerial exception” being recognized by the Supreme Court isn’t that much of a surprise. To find otherwise, as the Court stated in its opinion, would be untenable and go against all of the Courts of Appeals. “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”
Indeed, the court concludes:
We agree that there is such a ministerial exception. The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. 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, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.
What is more notable is that there appears to be a broad definition of who is a “minister”. (And, to state the obvious, rabbis and the like are obviously included). The court took pains to point out that it hasn’t adopted “a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.” But it concluded that “given all the circumstances of her employment”, it applies here.