Religious Groups Granted Exception to Employment Discrimination Laws

London, 17 January 2012

On 11 January 2012, the United States Supreme Court delivered its judgment in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Et Al. The case concerned the dismissal of Cheryl Perich, who had been employed as a teacher by Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought an employment discrimination suit against Hosanna-Tabor under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Hosanna-Tabor argued that the suit was barred by the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment to the US Constitution (the Religion Clauses). The Supreme Court was required to determine whether the Religion Clauses preclude the application of discrimination legislation to the employment relationship between a religious group and one of its ministers and whether Perich could be considered a minister. 
 
The Court held that the Religion Clauses do give rise to a “ministerial exception”. It reasoned that to require a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister would interfere with its internal governance and deprive the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. Such an act would infringe the Religion Clauses, which protect a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. 
 
The Court refrained from adopting a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister, but was clear in stating that the ministerial exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation. 
 
In conclusion, the Supreme Court stated that:

The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way. 

In the view of The Equal Rights Trust, it is unacceptable that in a democratic society which purports to respect equality of rights, persons are denied protection from employment discrimination on grounds of disability when employed as a minister by a religious organisation. This is particularly concerning when the notion of who constitutes a minister is interpreted broadly. It is unclear how discriminating againt a person on the basis of disability serves to protect religious freedom in a way compatible with basic principles of equality and human rights.
 
To read a case summary of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Et Al, click here
 
To read the judgment in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Et Al, click here

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