Court to decide if the ministerial exception, which allows religious institutions to discriminate for certain positions, encompasses the disabilities.
Employment Discrimination, also known as workplace discrimination, is discrimination in hiring, promotion, job assignment, termination, and compensation. It includes various types of harassment.
The Supreme Court of the United States recently heard oral arguments in a case focused on the intersection of religious freedom and civil rights. A woman claiming she was prevented from continuing to teach at a religious school in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is asking the court to clarify the scope of the "ministerial exception" to employment discrimination laws.
Teacher Asked to Resign After Disability Leave
The woman was a fourth-grade teacher at a school run by the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod where she taught secular and religious classes and led student prayers. The school made her a "called" teacher, deeming her religiously fit for a permanent teaching position at the school and a commissioned minister, reports the Huffington Post.
A few years later the teacher went on disability leave for a sleep disorder, and when she returned, the school asked her to resign. The teacher then threatened to file an employment-discrimination lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that the church violated the ADA. In response, the school fired her based on church teachings that prohibit Lutheran leaders from suing the church. Instead, they are directed to resolve their disputes within the church structure.
The Ministerial Exception to Employment Discrimination Laws
Over several decades, the ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws has been developed by American courts. It essentially states that the First Amendment's separation of church and state prevents courts from enforcing anti-discrimination employment laws on behalf of employees of religious organizations. Because it is a Constitutional prohibition, the exception generally applies to state discrimination laws. For example, the Roman Catholic Church has been able to hire only male priests and discriminate on the basis of gender because of the ministerial exception. The basic principle behind it is that the government should not intervene in religious organizations' employment decisions regarding their leaders
However, the teacher in the Supreme Court case asserts that the ministerial exception should not apply to leaders with primarily secular responsibilities such as teaching elementary school, in contrast to clergy. In fact, that is very similar to the approach taken by Michigan courts last year when ruling on the ministerial exception to Michigan anti-discrimination laws. In a 2010 Michigan case, the state appeals court followed a multi-factor test to find a ministerial exception meant the Michigan Whistle-blower Protection Act couldn't help a teacher because her teaching duties were "primarily religious."
Currently, the ministerial exception in federal law could be used as a pretext to deny employment to someone for a variety of otherwise-prohibited reasons, including his or her race, sex, age or disability, regardless of the job duties ruling on whether or when a religious organization can be sued by an employee for employment discrimination is expected in the spring of 2012.