Supreme Court recognizes “ministerial exception” to discrimination claims

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled January 11 that the American with Disabilities Act, and other anti-discrimination statutes, do not apply to individuals employed at religious institutions, in what had previously been recognized by other courts as the “ministerial exception.”

Cheryl Perich, an elementary school teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Michigan, went on disability leave for narcolepsy in 2004. When she returned a year later, the school declined to grant her job back.

Perich subsequently filed an ADA employment discrimination claim, arguing that her job was predominantly secular so therefore the government could provide her protection without violating the school’s freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.

While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit looked favorably at this argument in March 2010, the Supreme Court determined that the First Amendment prohibits the government from interfering with most employment decisions in religious organizations, though it declined to set a “rigid formula” for determining the extent of the “ministerial exception.”

“The purpose of the exception is not to safeguard a church’s decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. “The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone.”