The U.S. Supreme Court announced an opinion on January 11, 2012, in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, et al. The question presented was whether the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution bar suits brought on behalf of ministers against their churches, claiming termination in violation of employment discrimination laws. The unanimous court resoundingly held that suits such as these are indeed barred.
Since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, our Courts of Appeals have consistently held that a “ministerial exception” exists, based on the First Amendment , that prohibits secular courts from interfering with the freedom of a religious organization to select its ministers. However, in the US Supreme Court, this precise question had not been presented. There is a long line of Supreme Court precedent, dating to Watson v. Jones, 1872, and continuing to the present, that has recognized the right of the religious organization to select its ministers, but these cases have only addressed the issue in the context of property disputes.
The unanimous opinion in the Hosanna-Tabor case is that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment do, indeed, bar suits against religious organizations on behalf of ministers claiming wrongful termination in violation of employment discrimination laws. This opinion will have real significance for denominations as well as individual churches. For example, this opinion might well form a basis for a church or denomination to successfully oppose a suit brought by a female minister who alleges wrongful termination resulting from sexual harassment. No case decisions have yet been rendered following the Hosanna-Tabor opinion.
The opinion specifically allows the religious organization to define the meaning of “minister” and to make decisions regarding selection of ministers. The probable effect will be to reduce the number of complaints made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and lawsuits initiated on behalf of ministers removed from ministry. Another consequence may be an increase in complaints made within the church’s or the denomination’s disciplinary process.
The United States Supreme Court has recognized the church’s responsibility for ministerial leadership selection. Some denominations are already engaged in work to develop more thorough and effective processes for selection, supervision, and even discharge of ministers. This work is vitally important. As the concurring opinion of Justice Alito states, “A religion cannot depend on someone to be an effective advocate for its religious vision if that person’s conduct fails to live up to the religious precepts that he or she espouses.” In order to fulfill the church’s mission, the church or the denomination must be careful in its selection processes and dedicated in its efforts to support the ongoing education and development of ministers filled with integrity.
For more in-depth consideration of the issues raised by the Hosanna Tabor opinion, see “Still a Threshold Question: Refining the Ministerial Exception Post Hosanna-Tabor” by Mark E. Chopko and Marissa Parker, University of North Carolina School of Law First Amendment Law Review Winter 2010, posted at www.stradley.com.
For more information or consultation contact Joy Melton of Hindson & Melton LLC.