Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, et al.
Do churches and other religious institutions have to abide by federal employment laws when it comes to their ministers? This case involved an employment dispute between a church-run school and a “called” (ordained) teacher, raising questions about the “ministerial exception.”
BJC filed a brief to defend a First Amendment doctrine called the “ministerial exception,” which bars most lawsuits between ministerial personnel and their religious employers. Siding with the school, the BJC brief pointed out that the ministerial exception protects the fundamental freedom of religious communities to select their leaders, and it is a “clear and crucial implication of religious liberty.”
The brief was joined by BJC, the Christian Legal Society, the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, the National Association of Evangelicals and others.
In a unanimous decision on January 11, 2012, 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.
While widely accepted by lower courts, the “ministerial exception” had not been explicitly recognized by the High Court until this ruling. In its decision, the justices declined to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister. Instead, the Court focused on the employee’s religious functions and her designation as a commissioned minister within the ecclesiastical structure of the employer.
“It is a helpful decision explaining the important and unique way that the Constitution protects religious organizations in matters of internal governance,” said BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman on the day of the decision.
From the Brief
“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. 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 ‘ministerial exception,’ at issue in this case, is a clear and crucial implication of religious liberty, church autonomy, and the separation of church and state. Reasonably constructed and applied, the ministerial exception not only helps civil decision-makers to avoid becoming entangled in essentially religious questions; it also, and even more importantly, protects the fundamental freedom of religious communities to educate and form their members.”
Podcast: Who’s a ‘minister’ and who gets to decide?
Discussion from May 14, 2020, on the 2020 ministerial exception cases and how they relate to Hosanna-Tabor.
BJC brief in the case (PDF)
Signed by BJC, Professor Eugene Volokh, National Council of Churches, Queens Federation of Churches, National Association of Evangelicals, Christian Legal Society
Defining the ministerial exception
By General Counsel Holly Hollman (2011)
High Court protects religious entities’ right to hire ministers (PDF)
Coverage in January 2012 magazine