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.

SCOTUS: Broad ministerial exception applies

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.

Continue Reading BREAKING: U.S. Supreme Court Supports Fairly Broad “Ministerial Exception” to Anti-Discrimination Laws

The Connecticut Supreme Court today ruled (in a decision that will be effective August 2, 2011) that the ministerial exception found under the First Amendment bars certain employment related claims brought against religious institutions.

Ministerial Exception Applies to More Than Churches

The court’s unanimous decision in Dayner v. Archdiocese of Hartford can be downloaded here.

In doing so, the Court explicitly adopts the rule found in the Second Circuit in Rweyemamu v. Cote — a case I discussed back in 2008 here.

That rule requires a court to consider whether: “1) the employment relationship is religious in nature; and 2) if so, whether adjudicating the particular claims and defenses in the case would require the court to intrude into a religious institution’s exclusive right to decide matters pertaining to doctrine or its internal governance or organization. ”

In this case, the court said that the claims must fail. Victory to the religious employer.

For religious institutions in the state, this case is a must read and will clarify the standards that will (or will not) apply to reviewing employment decisions it makes.   The case — which concerns the dismissal of a religious school principal — will have a more wide-ranging impact than you must first think about.

The case applies to ministerial exception to more than simply discrimination-type claims. Rather, the court applied it equally to common-law tort and contract claims as well.

The case has a lot of interesting tidbits – including some buried in footnotes — and I hope to point out a few of them in an upcoming post. Until then, religious institutions in the state have some new required reading.

Ministerial Exception

It’s just a little bit ironic that on this Good Friday, the Second Circuit decided a case that will be very important to religious institutions in Connecticut, New York and Vermont.  Ultimately, it held that Title VII — which, among other things, prohibits discriminaticourtesy morgue file (church) - public domain licenseon based on race — is unconstitutional when applied to certain religious institutions, thereby confirming the existence of the "ministerial exception."

In Rweyemamu v. Cote (download here) , the Second Circuit decided an issue of first impression here.  As the court noted, "This court has had no prior occasion to confirm the existence of the ministerial exception, and rarely an opportunity to discuss its scope."

And upon reflection, the court held, "we affirm the vitality of that doctrine in the Second Circuit. In our view, the ministerial exception is constitutionally required by various doctrinal underpinnings of the First Amendment." 

The case arises from a lawsuit brought in Connecticut against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich. The Plaintiff, claimed that its Bishop, misapplied canon law in denying him a requested
promotion and, ultimately, in terminating him.   Father Justinian Rweyemamu, an African-American Catholic priest, claimed racial  discrimination in a Title VII suit against the Bishop and the
Diocese.

For any religious institutions in the state, this case should now be required reading and required consideration when faced with any employment-related decisions.  The amount of protection that this exception offers — while not absolute — is significant.  When my trial ends, I hope to provide more information about it, but for now, its worth taking a look at.

For those curious, both sides had notable Connecticut attorneys.  The Plaintiff was represented by Norm Pattis, who has an amusing blog here as well as a weekly column in the Law Tribune.  And, on a personal note, I used to work with Meredith Diette, who successfully represented the defendants in this case and wish her congratulations on the results she achieved for her client.