Landmark U.S. Supreme Court 9-0 Decision?
January 20, 2012

On January 11, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that both the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar lawsuits brought on behalf of ministers against their churches claiming their termination was in violation of federal employment discrimination laws.

The entire U.S. Supreme Court decision of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al., can be found by clicking here.

This seismic ruling is one of the most important decisions issued by the United States Supreme Court in the last 50 years protecting the staffing and governance rights of religious organizations.

The following are a few of the critically important messages from the Court's decision:

  • The Ministerial Exception announced by the Court now applies to all civil rights laws. 
  • The Ministerial Exception is not limited to the head of a religious organization but includes all engaged in ministry on behalf of the religious organization. It can include not only those who are ordained leaders but also can include lay leaders who are chosen to lead by this particular congregation or ministry. 
  • The role that a minister plays in conveying the church's message and carrying out its missions can be carried out not only by individuals who carry the title "Father", "Reverend", "Rabbi", "Pastor", or "Imam" but also by teachers, counselors, and volunteers provided, of course, they are engaged in an activity germane to core principles of their faith.
  • Whether a person is a "minister" under this doctrine is not to be resolved by a stopwatch or metric-driven approach. In addition, a person can perform secular duties and still be considered a "minister."? 
  • The Court's unanimous opinion is a wholesale rejection of the EEOC's argument that the freedom of a church to select those who minister on its behalf is no greater than the freedom of a labor union to select its leader. 
  • There are many lessons to be learned from this watershed decision. In the year ahead we will be holding seminars to discuss the scope of the Ministerial Exception and how to best fall within this exception. We recommend that you consider re-evaluating your teacher handbooks, your employee handbooks, your job descriptions, your employment contract and other internal procedures that will give full voice to the breadth of the Hosanna-Tabor decision.