In unanimous decision, justices rule ‘ministerial exception’ grounded in First Amendment

Contact: Jeff Huett 202-544-4226
Cherilyn Crowe 202-544-4226

January 11, 2012

WASHINGTON – In a unanimous decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a First Amendment doctrine that bars most employment discrimination lawsuits by ministerial personnel against their employers applies in a dispute between a church-run school and a former teacher commissioned by the church.

Baptist Joint Committee General Counsel K. Hollyn Hollman commended the ruling. “It is a helpful decision explaining the important and unique way that the Constitution protects religious organizations in matters of internal governance,” she said.

While widely accepted by lower courts, the “ministerial exception” had not been explicitly recognized by the High Court until today. In its decision, the justices declined to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister and rejected a purely quantitative assessment of duties. Instead, the Court focused on the employee’s religious functions and her designation as a commissioned minister within the ecclesiastical structure of the employer.

“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the court. “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 opinion continued. “The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.”

The BJC filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case arguing that the ministerial exception is a “clear and crucial implication of religious liberty.” The brief, which was also joined by the Christian Legal Society, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA and the National Association of Evangelicals, said the doctrine “protects the fundamental freedom of religious communities to select their leaders, church autonomy and the separation of church and state.”

“It should be remembered that at any point in time any given religious community is a mere generation away from extinction, and that teachers in religious schools are commonly on the front line of conveying the faith to children and forming them morally,” the brief stated. “Given our nation’s deeply rooted commitments to religious freedom and church-state separation, an employment-related lawsuit in a civil court is not a permissible vehicle for second-guessing a religious community’s decision about who should be responsible for keeping the next generation.”

The case is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, et al.

Click here to view the BJC’s brief as a PDF document.


The Baptist Joint Committee is a 76-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty organization that works to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, bringing a uniquely Baptist witness to the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government.