Thursday, January 12, 2012

Supreme Court recognizes "ministerial exception" to employment discrimination laws

Yesterday, the Supreme Court recognized, for the first time, a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, holding that churches and other religious organizations are free to choose their ministers without government interference. Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 10-553 (Jan. 11, 2012).

Writing for the unanimous court, Chief Justice Roberts stated that allowing anti-discrimination lawsuits against religious organizations could force churches to take religious leaders they no longer want.

"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."

The Court avoided creating a set of "hard and fast" rules regarding who is a religious employee of a religious organization.  "We are reluctant ... to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister ... It is enough for us to conclude, in this, our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers Perich, given all the circumstances of her employment."