Supreme Court Says Church Not Liable Under Employment Discrimination Law for Firing Minister
In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC, decided January 11, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a church was not in violation of employment discrimination laws when it fired a person it deemed to be a minister. The basis for this holding is that such laws do not apply with respect to employment decisions involving ministers of churches. The question was whether the terminated employee was properly classified as a “minister.”
In reaching its decision, the Court indicated that it would not adopt a rigid formula for determining who is or is not a minister. Rather, it held that on the facts of this case the employee was, in fact, a minister. The Court noted that the employee had received a significant degree of religious training, followed by a formal process of commissioning and thereafter the church held the employee out as a minister.
To be eligible to become a commissioned minister, the employee had to complete eight college-level courses in subjects including biblical interpretation, church doctrine and the ministry of being a church teacher. The employee was also required to obtain the endorsement of the local district of her church and to pass an oral examination by the faculty committee at a church college. Further, the employee held herself out as a minister by accepting the formal call to religious service. She also claimed the special housing allowance on her taxes that is available only to ministers. Based on the above, the Court concluded that the employee, in fact, was a minister and that the ministerial exception to the employment discrimination laws applied.
The Court advised that it was not expressing an opinion at this point on other types of lawsuits by employees against religious employers. Specifically, the Court advised that it was expressing no view on whether the ministerial exception bars other types of suits, including actions alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by religious employers. It advised that these matters could be addressed in future cases, if and when they arise.
This case is significant because it sheds some light as to how the Court will approach the determination of when an employee qualifies as a minister. It is likely that this analysis will be considered in other contexts. For example, as noted above, ministers are entitled to certain benefits under the tax laws, including parsonage and housing allowances. Further, ministers are eligible for inclusion in “church plans” for retirement purposes. Therefore, we recommend that churches and other religious institutions carefully analyze this decision and the procedures used to designate employees as ministers. The more closely the procedures for doing so are aligned with the Court’s decision, the more likely the designation will be respected.