Supreme Court Clarifies Ministerial Exception

Wright Beamer is privileged to count many churches and religious-based organizations as clients. While their legal needs are typical of other organizational clients, some things – by virtue of the First Amendment to the Constitution – are necessarily treated differently. For example, while we know that employers cannot discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religion, exceptions have been carved out for religious-based organizations to ensure that the government does not interfere in matters of faith and doctrine.

The term used in the employment law context is “ministerial exception,” first coined by the U.S Supreme Court in 2012 to reflect the principle that the government cannot interfere in the employment relationship between religious institutions and certain key employees. Unfortunately, the term was thereafter narrowly interpreted and applied, giving rise to conflicting interpretations of what constituted a “minister.”

In two companion cases recently handed down by the Supreme Court involving teachers at private religious schools, the Court, in a 7-2 ruling, clarified that the ministerial exception does not apply strictly to employees with the title of “minister,” but to any employee that serves a religious function within the institution. In other words, despite its phrasing, the ministerial exception does not apply just to clergy; religious organizations have the right to determine who will play the key roles in upholding the religious mission of the institution, regardless of title.

While religious institutions do not enjoy a general immunity from secular laws, the First Amendment does protect their autonomy to make internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission. As summed up by Justice Alito writing for the majority, “What matters, at the bottom, is what an employee does.”

Are you a religious-based organization with questions? We can help. Call us at (248) 477-6300.