Employment Law for Ministries


Judges Spar over the Scope of the Ministerial Exception

Religious organizations enjoy protections from employment lawsuits that secular employers do not. The so-called ministerial exception—which we've discussed in prior newsletters—bars courts from second-guessing hiring and firing decisions by churches, affiliated schools, and the like because the First Amendment protects the right of a religious organization to choose who will minister for it. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized this doctrine when it held that a teacher for a Lutheran School could not pursue a discrimination claim. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC (2012).

The ministerial exception only applies to cases involving a “minister.” That term undoubtedly covers priests and pastors, and it extended to the schoolteacher in Hosanna-Tabor, but its scope is a matter of debate. A long-running court battle in California involving a Catholic schoolteacher involves that very question, and a new ruling in the case highlights the lack of judicial consensus. The U.S. Supreme Court may need to step in again.

In the California case, Biel v. St. James Catholic School, the school discharged Biel not long after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She sued the school for disability discrimination. The school claimed it was exempt from the suit under the ministerial exception, and the trial court agreed. But, on appeal, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held in a 2-1 decision last December that Biel’s case could proceed.

Backed by several other organizations, St. James School asked the full Ninth Circuit to reconsider. On June 25, a majority of the court rejected that request. However, nine judges published a strong dissenting opinion accusing the majority of too narrowly protecting religious freedom. (The full dissenting opinion is available here.)

Biel required the Ninth Circuit judges to interpret Hosanna-Tabor. There, the Supreme Court held that the Lutheran schoolteacher, Perich, was a minister by considering a variety of factors: whether she was ordained, had a ministry title, and held herself out to others as a minister. The Court also considered her job functions, which involved “lead[ing] others toward Christian maturity” and “teach[ing] faithfully the Word of God, the Sacred Scriptures, in its truth and purity and as set forth in all the symbolical books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church":

In fulfilling these responsibilities, Perich taught her students religion four days a week, and led them in prayer three times a day. Once a week, she took her students to a school-wide chapel service, and—about twice a year—she took her turn leading it, choosing the liturgy, selecting the hymns, and delivering a short message based on verses from the Bible. During her last year of teaching, Perich also led her fourth graders in a brief devotional exercise each morning. As a source of religious instruction, Perich performed an important role in transmitting the Lutheran faith to the next generation.

In its initial ruling last December, the Ninth Circuit panel held that Biel was unlike Perich because St. James School did not hold Biel out as a minister, she did not hold herself out as such, and her title did not reflect "ministerial substance and training." According to the court, Biel had "none of Perich’s credentials, training, or ministerial background. There was no religious component to her liberal studies degree or teaching credential. St. James had no religious requirements for her position. And, even after she began working there, her training consisted of only a half-day conference whose religious substance was limited. Unlike Perich, who joined the Lutheran teaching ministry as a calling, Biel appears to have taken on teaching work wherever she could find it: tutoring companies, multiple public schools, another Catholic school, and even a Lutheran school."

The dissenting judges argued that the court should have focused on the function of the employee’s job. “In applying the ministerial exception, our court should look to the function performed by employees of religious bodies. Doing so would honor the foundational protections of the First Amendment and ensure all religious groups are afforded the same protection.”

The dissenting opinion relied on the following facts in concluding that, considering her job functions, Biel qualified as a minister:

  • The school’s mission is “to develop and promote a Catholic School Faith Community within the philosophy of Catholic education” as implemented at school and “the doctrines, laws, and norms of the Catholic Church” 
  • The school’s faculty handbook required that teachers “participate in the Church’s mission” of providing “quality Catholic education to . . . students, educating them in academic areas and in . . . Catholic faith and values”
  • Biel’s employment contract likewise required her to work toward the school's “overriding commitment” to the “doctrines, laws, and norms” of the Catholic Church, and to “model, teach, and promote behavior in conformity to the teaching" of the church
  • The school required Biel to dedicate a minimum of 200 minutes each week to religious instruction
  • Biel taught religion at least four days per week, using a curriculum and textbook grounded in the Catholic faith and in the church’s teaching
  • Biel supervised and joined her students during twice-daily prayer led by students and escorted them to a school-wide monthly mass.

The dissent faulted the majority for its focus on whether Biel had credentials, training, or a ministerial background that were similar to Perich's. A problem with this analysis, according to the dissent, is that it failed to account for differences in how the Catholic and Lutheran churches and their schools operate.

For example: "Catholicism contains a rich history replete with evidence that its teachers play an essential role in its religious mission, yet it doesn’t always embrace a formal title for such teachers as Hosanna-Tabor did with Perich." In addition, whether Biel was "ordained" or received special religious training was beside the point, according to the dissent: “The Catholic Church has repeatedly emphasized that the growth of lay Catholic teachers—those who are succeeding roles previously held by religious orders, sisters, brothers, and clergy—does not change a Catholic teacher’s responsibilities.” The dissent summarized: “The ministerial exception protects the 'interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.' …Catholic school teachers certainly hold this special role.” 

In all likelihood, St. James School will now ask the Supreme Court to review this case. We will report on further developments, but please let us know if you have any questions about this information in the meantime.

This summary is provided as an informational tool. It is not intended to be and should not be considered legal advice, and receipt of this information does not establish an attorney-client relationship.