This is an update to a previous Case Bulletin, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, 597 F.3d 769 (6th Cir. 2010). In this case, Cheryl Perich was asked to take a leave of absence from her position as a "called" teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School ["Hosanna-Tabor"] following complications arising from narcolepsy (a sleep disorder). When she was later denied the opportunity to return to work, Perich threatened to sue for discrimination. The school then terminated Perich from her position claiming that she had "damaged, beyond any repair" her working relationship with the religious entity.
Following this action by Hosanna-Tabor, Perich filed a retaliation complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act ["ADA"]. Hosanna-Tabor raised the ministerial exception as a jurisdictional bar, arguing that the doctrine precludes courts from hearing employment cases that involve the relationship between a religious institution and its ministerial employees. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that: (1) Perich's retaliation claim did not fall into the ministerial exception, even though Hosanna-Tabor was a religious organization, because Perich's primary duties were not ministerial in nature and were similar to the duties of non-ministerial "contracted" teachers at the Hosanna-Tabor School; and (2) Perich's retaliation claim would not impermissibly require a court to interpret church doctrine. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and issued a ruling on January 11, 2012.
Reversing the Sixth Circuit's holding that the ministerial exception did not apply to Perich's retaliation claim, the Supreme Court held that the complaint was in fact barred by the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment. Reaching this conclusion, the Court highlighted the fact that the position of "called" teacher at Hosanna-Tabor entailed significant religious training and a formal process of becoming a commissioned minister. While the Court held that the title of commissioned minister "does not automatically ensure coverage under the ministerial exception," it stated that such a title is certainly relevant to considerations about whether the exception applies, as are facts pertaining to the amount of time such an individual spends on religious activities, and the specific duties that distinguish the commissioned minister from other employees of the religious entity. Since the Court determined that Perich's position was that of a commissioned minister and entailed duties different from those of a regular teacher, it held that the ministerial exception applied.
Additionally, responding to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's argument that the exception did not apply because Hosanna-Tabor’s decision to fire Perich was not made for "religious reason[s]," the Court held that the ministerial exception ensures that religious entities have the complete freedom to "select and control who will minister to the faithful," regardless of whether these decisions are made on religious or other grounds.
The Supreme Court briefly addressed a conflict that had arisen at the circuit and district court level regarding whether the ministerial exception functions as a "jurisdictional bar" preventing courts from hearing such claims, or as an affirmative defense available to the defendant in an employment discrimination claim. Courts in the First, Third, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits had demonstrated disagreement over this issue in prior cases.
Resolving this disagreement, the Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception operates as an affirmative defense, and not a jurisdictional bar, to an otherwise valid claim. This is because the exception applies to considerations of whether a plaintiff is entitled to relief, not whether the court has the power to hear the case in the first place. This holding allows courts to decide cases potentially involving the ministerial exception on the merits, and places the burden of demonstrating that the exception applies on the defendant, rather than the plaintiff.
The Supreme Court’s holding in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission represents the first time that the Court has formally recognized a "ministerial exception" to claims brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (although lower courts had previously recognized the exception). Two major clarifications of law emerged from the Supreme Court's ruling: (1) firing decisions made by religious entities need not be made for "religious reasons" in order for the ministerial exception to apply; and (2) the exception constitutes an affirmative defense that must be raised by a defendant in an employment discrimination complaint.