In a 7-2 decision on July 8, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that churches and religious organizations can make employment decisions based on their convictions. The ruling clarified application of the “ministerial exception” doctrine to employment disputes.
The case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, involved two Catholic elementary school teachers who alleged discrimination and wrongful termination. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in favor of the teachers, refusing to allow the school employers to raise the ministerial exception defense in these employment-related disputes. The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision and held that the schools properly raised the ministerial exception defense in these instances.
“This is one of the pending decisions I referred to in my June ‘Jeremiah Journal,’” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “I am grateful for the Supreme Court’s decision that upholds the First Amendment protection of religious liberty and slaps back the hand of secular government overreach. While our culture is increasingly antagonistic toward the gospel and those who seek to live by it, inherent in the First Amendment are the rights of religious organizations to employ those who share their beliefs.”
Importantly, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the ministerial exception that was recognized unanimously in its ruling in a 2012 case, Hosanna v. Tabor. The Court clarified in the Guadalupe case that its use of a set of four factors in Hosanna-Tabor were not a checklist that must be met in all cases for the ministerial exception to apply.
“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority. “Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”
The majority opinion further states, “What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does … educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.”
The seven-justice majority clarified that the use of “minister” or other clerical titles is not necessary for the exception to apply, by stating, “since many religious traditions do not use the title ‘minister,’ it cannot be a necessary requirement.”
A variety of ministry organizations joined an amicus brief in support of the religious schools in the case, including the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), of which the EPC is an Accredited Member.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Neil Gorsuch, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice John Roberts joined Alito in the majority. Dissenting were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
Click here for the Supreme Court’s full opinion.
with additional reporting from the ECFA