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Supreme Court rules in favor of broad ‘ministerial exception’

by Brad A. Greenberg

January 11, 2012 | 12:16 pm

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously today for the church, making a strong statement opposing a narrow interpretation of the ministerial exception that tells courts to stay out of disputes between religious organizations and their ministers. At issue in Hosanna-Tabor was the breadth of the ministerial umbrella—did this exception only apply to the employment of pastors and preachers or did it also cover the employment of teachers at religious schools?

SCOTUSblog explains the Court’s ruling:

Closing the courthouse door much of the way, but not completely, to workplace bias lawsuits by church employees who act as ministers to their denominations, the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously gave its blessing — for the first time — to a “ministerial exception” to federal, state, and local laws against virtually all forms of discrimination on the job.  The Court’s ruling, which only Justice Clarence Thomas said did not go far enough, did not order courts to throw out all such lawsuits as beyond their jurisdiction, but it left them with only a narrow inquiry before the likely order of dismissal would come down.  As soon as the denomination makes its point that it counts an employee as a “minister,” within its internal definition, that is probably the end of the case.  And the employee could be anyone from the congregational leader, on down to any worker considered to be advancing the religious mission.

Read the rest here.

I don’t find the Court’s ruling surprising. Teacher’s at religious schools generally are ministers—even if they do not teach religious classes. So, as the Court said, if the employee does work that is considered to advance the organization’s religious mission, their employment is covered by the ministerial exception.

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