July 9, 2020

United States Supreme Court Clarifies the Scope of the Ministerial Exception

In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 591 U.S. ___, 2020 WL 3808420 (2020) (“Morrissey-Berru”), the United States Supreme Court provided further guidance on the application of the “ministerial exception,” which provides religious organizations with a defense against generally applicable employment laws in the selection or retention of employees who perform certain tasks involving preaching, teaching, and counseling.     

In Morrissey-Berru, the Court considered two cases involving two former teachers from different Roman Catholic schools in Los Angeles. Both teachers were employed under nearly identical agreements that emphasized the Catholic faith as central to their work as teachers, and both sued their Catholic school employers after they were terminated: one for age discrimination under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the other for disability discrimination under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. In both cases, the Catholic schools prevailed before the district court based on the courts’ application of the ministerial exception. However, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit reversed in both cases. Relying on the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012) (“Hosanna-Tabor”), which recognized the ministerial exception for the first time, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the four factors outlined in Hosanna-Tabor were not present.

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and held that the ministerial exception barred courts from adjudicating either teacher’s employment discrimination claim. The Court explained that there was ample record evidence showing that both teachers performed religious duties, including educating the students about religion. Moreover, the Court explained that there is no rigid formula for applying the ministerial exception, but that the Ninth Circuit had nevertheless improperly treated Hosanna-Tabor as a rigid checklist.

The clarification provided by Morrissey-Berru seems designed to provide religious organizations with ample flexibility to choose their leaders and religious educators, and discourages courts from applying a rigid bright-line rule or multi-factor balancing test to determine whether the ministerial exception applies. Religious educational institutions in particular should note from the holding in Morrissey-Berru that the ministerial exception will most likely apply to teachers that educate students on religious matters on behalf of a religious organization.