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May a church employee who is considered a “minister” properly present a wrongful termination of employment discrimination claim against the church employer?


In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously concluded that the “ministerial exception”, grounded in the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, prohibits and prevents lawsuits being brought by “ministers” against their churches, claiming termination in violation of employment discrimi­nation laws. See Who is a Minister?

The case that decided this issue was:

      Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC 565 U. S. ___ (2012) 


Facts of Hosanna case: 


The particular local Christian Lutheran Church and School is a member congregation of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. The Synod classifies its school teachers into two categories: “called” and “lay.”


“Called” teachers are regarded as having a calling from God regarding their vocation. To be considered “called,” a teacher must complete certain academic requirements.  This included a course of theological study. Once called, a teacher receives the formal title “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.”


In contrast, “Lay” teachers, do not have to be trained by the Synod.  They also don’t have to be a Lu­theran.


In general, lay and called teachers at Hosanna-Tabor performed the same duties.  But lay teachers were hired only when called teachers were unavailable.  


A called teacher named Cheryl Perich taught secular subjects.  She further taught a religion class.  She led her students in daily Christian prayer and devotional exercises.  Additionally, she took her stu­dents to a weekly school-wide chapel service. Lastly, Ms. Perich led the chapel service typically two time per school year.


Perich developed narcolepsy and took a disability leave of absence.  When she tried to return to work, she learned that school principal already contracted with a lay teacher to fill Perich’s position for the remainder of the school year. A dispute arose, strained negotiations occurred; but she was ultimately terminated.



The First Amendment provides, in part, that:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

By forbidding the “establishment of religion” and guaranteeing the “free exercise thereof,” the Religion Clauses ensured that the new U.S. Federal Government (in contrast to the Eng­lish Crown) would have no role in filling ecclesiastical offices.

The Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized the existence of a “ministerial exception” to various employment discrimination laws.

The “ministerial exception” prevents employment discrimination claims related to the employment relationship be­tween a religious institution and its ministers.

The ministerial exception is not limited to the head or leader of a reli­gious congregation.

The Court in Hosanna did not adopt a “rigid for­mula” for deciding when an employee qualifies as a "minister", but prescribed a totality of the circumstances approach.

Rationale for the Exception: 

To hold that a ministerial exception does not apply would interfere with internal church governance.  It would deprive the church of control “over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”

If the government (the courts) had the power to determine who will minister to the church congregation, that would violate the Establishment Clause because that would permit the government to participate in ecclesiastical decisions.

The ministerial exception protects a religious group’s “right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”

The purpose of the exception safeguards a church’s decision to fire a pastor or minister when it is made for a religious reason. But that’s not all. The exception also ensures that the church authority alone (and not the government) can select and control who will minister to the congregation.

Application of Facts to Law:

The Supreme Court concluded that the ministerial exception prohibited Perich from continuing her lawsuit based on the totality of the circumstances of her employment.

First, the church held her out as a minister with a role distinct from that of most of its church members. That title required a significant degree of religious training.  There was a formal process of commissioning.

Further, Ms. Perich also held herself out as a minister by, for example, accepting the formal call to religious ser­vice.

And her job duties reflected a role in communicating the Church’s religious message and carrying out its mission.

In short, Perich “played an important part in transmitting the Lu­theran faith.”


The Court held that the ministerial exception “bars an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister [which is broadly defined], challenging her church’s decision to fire her."

In summary, the US Supreme Court reaffirmed that the First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion, and, further, that decisions about religious employees (ministers) ought to be free from government intermeddling, interference and control

The minister is a vital and central instrument by which a church seeks to fulfill its religious and/or spiritual purpose.  This relationship is of prime ecclesiastical concern.  Thus, just as initially selecting a minister or pastor is a church decision (not involving the secular government), so, too, is the minister's salary, ability to perform his or her duties, and termination are church self-governance decisions which are not normally subject to the federal or state government or court intervention or decisional control.

Hosanna Tabor reveals that the separation between church and state is a two-way street, that is, it protects both the autonomy of organized religion as well as prohibits governmental “advancement” of religion.

Note 1: The ministerial exception applies to religious organizations, not just churches. The ministerial exception is not limited to churches. For example, the exception extends to “church-related institutions which have a “substantial religious character.” (Schmoll v. Chapman University (1999) 70 Cal.App.4th 1434, 1439.) This includes church-affiliated schools. (Id. at p. 1436.).  

Note 2: What types of cases and causes of actions does the ministerial  exception apply? Courts in the U.S.A. have reached different and conflicting conclusions.  Discrimination claims that seek to force a religious organization to act contrary to religious tenets are barred by the exception.
The trend is that the ministerial exception applies to claims and causes of action that are connected to a religious employer’s hiring, firing, and working conditions decisions if such decisions pertain to application of its religious beliefs. 

See related articles:  Intra-Church Disputes and the Courts, Religion, Beliefs, Work Unions and Union Dues, Christians and Lawsuits, and God and Government

Author: Christian Attorney Matthew B. Tozer


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