Supreme Court Decision: Church Exceptions in Discrimination Cases

Author: Hans & Associates, P.C.

The separation of church and state under the First Amendment of the Constitution met another recent challenge. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought a discrimination case on behalf of a minister/teacher against the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. The teacher Cheryl Perich claimed she was fired based on a disability, narcolepsy. However, the church claimed it fired her based on ministerial reasons, and that her claim violated the church’s First Amendment right.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that churches and other religious groups have a ministerial exception to employment and discrimination laws. In this particular case, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the teacher was also an ordained minister. This fact was pivotal in the Supreme Court’s decision where it affirmed a church’s or religious group’s freedom to select or dismiss its own ministers without government interference.

While the Supreme Court did not establish a specific formula for determining employee qualifications for ministerial positions, it did establish that the ministerial exception did not only apply to heads of religious congregations. Based on this determination, the ministerial exception may encompass various types of religious workers.

Protect against discrimination claims

As a business, whether a non-profit organization or traditional business model, it is important to understand your rights and protect against discrimination claims. An experienced New York employment law attorney can provide employer defense and counseling to help a small or mid-sized business deal with discrimination issues. Many cases can be resolved through negotiated settlements, arbitration, or in hearings before the EEOC.

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