The US Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously in favor of the so-called “ministerial exception” for churches in HOSANNA-TABOR EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH AND SCHOOL v. EEOC.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination due to a disability. However, the courts hold that the First Amendment prohibits any governmental interference in the employment of “ministers” by a church.
In this case, a private school teacher was treated as a minister by the school, and as a result, the Supreme Court held that the minister has no right to sue for discrimination.
The EEOC and teacher challenged the propriety of calling the teacher a minister, as her job duties were primarily that of a school teacher, but the Supreme Court refused to even consider the merits of the claim.
The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.
Thus, the Supreme Court affirms for the first time that the First Amendment makes employment discrimination laws inapplicable to ministers. In short, a minister may not sue in state or federal court for discrimination.
The court declined to offer a rule for just how broadly “minister” may be defined, but found that the minister in this case certainly qualified. Although her job duties were very similar to a non-ministerial teacher, even at the same institution, she had to apply for and pass exams to be a minister. She was held out to the public as a minister.
It took Perich six years to fulfill these requirements. And when she eventually did, she was commissioned as a minister only upon election by the congregation, which recognized God’s call to her to teach.
She claimed the “housing allowance” that the Internal Revenue Code provides only for ministers of the gospel.
In fulfilling these responsibilities, Perich taught her students religion four days a week, and led them in prayer three times a day. Once a week, she took her students to a school-wide chapel service, and—about twice a year—she took her turn leading it, choosing the liturgy, selecting the hymns, and delivering a short message based on verses from the Bible. During her last year of teaching, Perich also led her fourth graders in a brief devotional exercise each morning.
The Supreme Court did conclude, however that the mere title “minister” is not enough.
Although such a title, by itself, does not automatically ensure coverage, the fact that an employee has been ordained or commissioned as a minister is surely relevant, as is the fact that significant religious training and a recognized religious mission underlie the description of the employee’s position.
Moreover, the fact that other “lay” teachers performed the same job functions does not change the conclusion —
We express no view on whether someone with Perich’s duties would be covered by the ministerial exception in the absence of the other considerations we have discussed. But though relevant, it cannot be dispositive that others not formally recognized as ministers by the church perform the same functions—particularly when, as here, they did so only because commissioned ministers were unavailable.
And the court found that it did not matter that her secular duties took up all but 45 minutes of each day. After all, most ministers have some secular duties.
Justice Thomas wrote a separate opinion to declare that the court had no business looking beyond the church’s designation of the teacher as a “minister.”
Justices Alito and Kagan wrote a separate opinion to affirm that “minister” is broader than ordained clergy and not limited to Christian ministers. However,
What matters is that respondent played an important role as an instrument of her church’s religious message and as a leader of its worship activities.
Moreover, they opined that the courts could not question the decision of her employer to fire her for filing suit in violation of the church’s doctrine opposing going to court!
Given that this concurrence is from authors reflecting both the left and right wings of the court, their concurring opinion may well be followed by lower courts, even though not technically precedent.
Now, what does this decision mean for the readers here? Well, several things —
1. If you’re a minister, you can’t sue for discrimination. Of course, 1 Corinthians 6 already says that, so it’s no loss of rights — not really.
2. If you claim a housing allowance as a minister, the courts may have little sympathy for a claim that you aren’t really a minister and so should be allowed to sue. But then, you weren’t going to sue anyway.
3. The Supreme Court grants very broad leeway for a church to designate who is a “minister” for First Amendment purposes. It’s probable that much the same considerations would apply to determine who is a “minister” for housing allowance purposes.
4. However, contrary to some press reports, the discretion is not unlimited. While the Supreme Court will clearly grant great deference to a church’s decision, the designation is not enough all by itself. The main opinion suggests (but doesn’t hold) that the test is “significant religious training and a recognized religious mission.”
The concurring opinion of Alito and Kagan probably sets the practical rule — a minister must be somehow significantly involved in teaching the church’s religious message and in leading worship.
Those who recall the earlier posts on the housing allowance (an exemption from income tax for money paid to provide housing for a minister) will recall that one key element of who is a “minister” is whether the minister performs “sacerdotal functions,” that is, corporate worship.
In the Churches of Christ, this is a challenging test because all male members can and often do lead communion services and baptize converts. Many churches allow women to perform private baptisms.
As a result, some of our universities allow faculty members to claim the housing allowance on the premise that “every member is a minister.” They accept a letter from the home church of the professor and reduce his tax withholdings.
It’s a tough question, but seems too good to be true, to me. In one sense, this case strengthens the argument for such an easy exemption, but it also places some serious constraints. After all, the teacher before the Supreme Court had to undergo a six-year ordination process to become a recognized minister. And she led her students in worship and in Bible instruction.
(Many of our preschool teachers come closer to meeting this test than many college professors!)
Finally, we’re dealing in a very gray area here. The IRS has not historically followed the exact analysis the Supreme Court does here. The Supreme Court was not directly addressing the tax issue, which is driven by a statute, whereas the Supreme Court was interpreting the First Amendment — which is not precisely the same question.
In short, don’t blithely assume that you have a free pass to claim a housing allowance just because you attend church, you have a letter from your elders, and your college is willing to cut your withholdings. It’s a much more subtle question.
I think you need to do something more minister-like, something that distinguishes you from the typical church goer, such as (a) being on a church’s staff as a minister or (b) regularly going into the mission field to spread the gospel or (c) preaching regularly for congregations, such as by preaching gospel meetings.
But those are not the only ways to be a “minister.” I just don’t think merely being a member in good standing gets you there — and that’s no disrespect to us members in good standing.
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