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In defense against an employment lawsuit asserting discrimination, religious organizations can assert they are exempt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 based upon the “ministerial exemption.”  The exemptions permitted religious organizations were explored in a recent employment law article on the case Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 17-1618, 2020 WL 3146686 (U.S. June 15, 2020).  Another recent Supreme Court case, Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru, 19-267, 2020 WL 3808420 (U.S. May 11, 2020), further expanded on the “ministerial exemption.” Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale employment attorney, who defends businesses and their owners against employment law claims. Such claims include alleged employment discrimination or retaliation as well as claims for overtime wages and other related claims.

Employment law has gradually collided over the years with religious freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution.  A great deal of court decisions have examined the proper balance between religious freedom rights versus prohibition of employment discrimination under Title VII.  This federal civil rights statute makes it unlawful for employers of 15 or more employees “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1).

Title VII’s restrictions on discrimination do not apply equally to religious institutions.  Churches and other religious organizations can generally discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring decisions.  Title VII explicitly provides an exception for religious organizations to discriminate on religious grounds. 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-1(a) (“[Title VII] shall not apply to an employer with respect […] to a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities”)

Courts have developed their own exemption to Title VII which is not found in Title VII itself: the “ministerial” exemption.  The ministerial exemption “precludes application of [Title VII] to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.”  Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  When the exemption applies, the qualifying job with a religious organization is completely exempt from Title VII.  Thus, for a qualifying job, a religious institution can discriminate based upon sex, race, color, or national origin, in addition to religion.

The ministerial exemption does not arise from the exemption within Title VII, but upon the First Amendment to the constitution.  U.S. Const. amend. I (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”).

The United States Supreme Court first recognized the ministerial exemption in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  Hosanna held that Title VII applied to exempt religious organizations in matters which were ecclesiastic.  The ministerial exemption was not something to be applied based on the religious teachings themselves, but rather on a judicial recognition that the government should not interfere with religious organization.  In other words, the limitations of the ministerial exemption was not limited to circumstances where it was a tenet of the religion to require the discrimination, such as Orthodox Jewish and Catholic organizations refusing consideration of women in clerical positions.   Hosanna recognized that the government should not be involved in matters of the selection of who executes the ministry. “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”

One recent and prominent lawsuit was brought by employment lawyers to decide the validity of a religious freedom objection against the civil rights requirements of Title VII.  The recent Supreme Court case, Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru, 19-267, 2020 WL 3808420 (U.S. May 11, 2020), elaborated on the ministerial exemption further.  In Morrissey, two teachers at religious schools were terminated from their jobs.  One claimed that she was fired because of her age and the other claimed that it was because of her breast cancer diagnosis.  Morrissey found that Title VII did not apply to these jobs, and thus, neither could make claims of discrimination under Title VII.  Morrissey was a significant expansion of religious liberty for employers, because the teaching jobs at issue was primarily the secular education of elementary school children.

Morrissey rejected the tests which were applied to evaluate whether the ministerial exemption to apply, including the requirement that the employee be a practicing member of the faith; that the job title be equivalent to minister, rabbi, or imam; that the religious teaching must come from one’s own guidance or views; that the employee take particular proportion of time educating about religion; or, that the employee have a formal religious education or training.

Morrissey did not articulate what exactly the test that should apply, and instead left this analysis open to interpretation for later cases.  Employment attorneys will likely further lawsuits to test the limits of the ministerial exception to Title VII.   Morrissey certainly applies to protect religious employers of teachers from claims of discrimination, however, the further application of the ministerial exemption to other Florida religious organizations is not yet known.  Morrissey could potentially even protect for-profit employers when the employee has some job duties associated with educating others on matters of religion.  Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale employment lawyer.  This article does not serve as a substitute for legal advice tailored to a particular situation.

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