Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Supreme Court Authorizes a "Ministerial Exception"

This week, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision recognizing a “ministerial exception” in relation to employment discrimination laws. Some believe that this is the Supreme Court’s “most significant religious liberty decision in two decades.” This ruling allows churches and religious groups the right to hire and fire their religious leaders without any type of government intervention.

Chief Justice Roberts conceded that employment discrimination is a very serious matter; however, this issue is apparently outweighed by the “interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.” While the ruling created the “ministerial exception”, limited guidance was provided in how to apply this exception. Also, while this exception protects religious organizations from employment discrimination claims, it does not negate the possibility of criminal prosecution and does not affect any other protections put in place for employees of these organizations.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Thomas suggested that it is not the court’s place to determine who qualifies for this new exception, and instead it should be the religious organization’s responsibility to make such a decision. In another concurring opinion, Justice Alito stated that concentrating on the title of “minister” was too stringent as this is a term primarily used only in Protestant denominations; he suggested that this exception instead be extended to “any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.”

While other protections remain in place for employees of religious organizations, this ruling, without any type of true guidance on its application, is problematic. For those that truly work as “ministers”, no matter their religious affiliation or actual title, the application of this exception is straightforward – people who lead their religious organization and/or performs what one would consider typical religious duties cannot bring claims of employment discrimination if they are terminated.

However, this ruling has the ability to be overextended in cases where employees of religious institutions minimally serve as “ministers”. In fact, the case that about this ruling involved an individual who only served forty-five minutes per day serving in a religious capacity; the rest of her work day was performed teaching secular subjects. While there were other factors the court considered before extending this “ministerial exception” in this case, it remains uncertain what type of minimal service is required before a religious organization can be exempt from employment discrimination under this exception.

For the complete article from the New York Times, click here.

For the Supreme Court decision, click here.

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