BJC defends religious freedom and the ‘ministerial exception’

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, et al. (2012)

BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman (right) speaks to reporters outside the Supreme Court after oral arguments in the Hosanna-Tabor case. Next to her is Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The Baptist Joint Committee filed a brief at the Supreme Court to defend a First Amendment doctrine called the “ministerial exception,” which bars most lawsuits between ministerial personnel and their employers. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, et al. (2012).

The case involved an employment dispute between a church-run school for children in grades K-8 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of a former teacher commissioned by the church who was fired.

In its friend-of-the-court brief, the BJC described the ministerial exception as a “clear and crucial implication of religious liberty, church autonomy and the separation of church and state.” The brief, which was joined by the Christian Legal Society, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA and the National Association of Evangelicals, pointed out that the “ministerial exception” protects the fundamental freedom of religious communities to select their leaders.

“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.”

In a unanimous 2012 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and applied the “ministerial exception.” It held that the employee in this case — a commissioned teacher of the church school — was not entitled to challenge her dismissal in a civil court.

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 the ruling. 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.”

Read the BJC brief  Read the Supreme Court decision  Read the BJC news release