The ministerial exception furthers the purposes of the First Amendment free exercise and establishment clauses by barring legal claims against church bodies by their employees who carry out religious functions.
It was first recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Employment Opportunity Division (2012).
Ministerial exception shields churches from improper government influence
In Hosanna, Cheryl Perich, a designated “called” minister and worker at the Hosanna-Tabor school, had attempted to bring the school and church to court over alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. After taking leave for narcolepsy, she had attempted to return to work and was fired for what the church considered to be insubordination and for her decision to take the matter to Court rather than resolve it internally.
In a unanimous decision for the Court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. indicated that circuit courts of appeals had been utilizing the ministerial exception as a way of shielding church decisions about its leadership from improper governmental influence which the First Amendment prohibited.
The line between ministers and others not always clear
Although the line between ministers and others would not always be clear, in this case, both the church and the petitioner had accepted her status as a called minister. She had taught religion and led religious ceremonies, and the exemption thus applied.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito stressed that the term “minister” was broader than it might appear since the specific term “is rarely if ever used this way by Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists.”
Alito thought that the proper query was to focus on the employee’s “function,” and believed that the exception “should apply to any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.” Thus, the title of “minister” was “neither necessary nor sufficient” in ascertaining when the exemption applied.
A case involving a teacher at Concord Christian School in Knoxville, Tennessee may clarify this doctrine. Tabatha Hutson, who is single, is suing the school in a U.S. District Court on the basis that the school had no right to fail to renew her contract as a kindergarten teacher on the basis that she was pregnant.
The school is claiming the ministerial exception while Hutson’s attorney denies that she was a “minister” of the church.