The Supreme Court defended religious liberty on Wednesday, bolstering and broadening the so-called “ministerial exception.” In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that the Constitution protects the freedom of religious organizations to hire and fire employees who play a vital role in fulfilling their religious mission. The decision, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, reaffirms important religious liberty principles and offers valuable guidance to religious organizations concerned about the strength of the protections of the First Amendment.
In an opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the court held that the ministerial exception barred two fifth-grade teachers at Catholic schools in Southern California from bringing employment discrimination claims against their schools. The court reversed the decision of the Ninth Circuit, which held that the teachers fell outside the ministerial exception because they lacked religious training and credentials, and did not hold themselves out as faith leaders.
Rejecting the lower court’s formalistic approach, the Supreme Court stated that religious titles and training were neither necessary nor sufficient for determining whether a particular employee falls within the ministerial exception. “What matters,” Alito wrote, “is what an employee does.”
Wednesday’s ruling built upon the unanimous 2012 decision in which the Supreme Court first recognized the ministerial exception. In that case, which CT called the biggest religion case in 20 years, the court held that the First Amendment barred an ordained teacher from suing her employer, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School, for alleged disability discrimination.
The 2012 decision relied on evidence that the teacher, Cheryl Perich, had been “called” by the church, completed a six-year theology program at a Lutheran college, held herself out as a minister, and performed a variety of religious functions at the school. Because those facts were enough to resolve the case, the court declined to provide a “rigid formula” for determining whether an employee counts as a minister, and is therefore not protected by employment law that regulates hiring and firing in America.
The teachers in Wednesday’s case, Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel, argued for a narrow application of the “ministerial exception” from the Hosanna-Tabor decision. Instead, the Supreme Court embraced a broad, flexible view of the ministerial exception, holding that courts should “take all relevant circumstances into account” in determining whether a worker carries out the mission of a religious employer. The court explained that the ministerial exception may even apply to employees who do not share their employer’s religious beliefs.
Focusing on the religious education context, the court emphasized the responsibility of teachers at religious schools to impart the faith to their students—something Morrissey-Berru and Biel were clearly charged with doing. That function, the court recognized, is at the “core” of a religious school’s mission. Citing Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, Alito specifically acknowledged the proliferation of non-denominational Christian schools aimed at “inculcating Biblical values in the students.”
At a moment when some Christians have despaired over recent Supreme Court decisions, Our Lady of Guadalupe has a lot to offer.
First, the decision explicitly reaffirms longstanding First Amendment protections for religious organizations, tracing the need for these protections back to England’s Acts of Uniformity in the 16th century. The court explained that while religious organizations are not immune from secular laws, the First Amendment protects their autonomy when it comes to “internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission.”
Second, the decision serves as something of a counterweight to last month’s Bostock case, which held that Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
In Bostock, the court acknowledged concerns about the interplay between religious liberty and Title VII’s newfound prohibition on LGBT discrimination. Writing for the majority, Justice Neal Gorsuch said he was “deeply concerned with preserving the promise of the free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution,” but he made no effort to explain how this promise might protect religious organizations holding traditional views about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Wednesday’s decision is a step in that direction. It appears to confirm that the First Amendment immunizes religious organizations from lawsuits brought by workers alleging LGBT discrimination, so long as those workers fall within the ministerial exception and play a vital part in carrying out the religious mission of the organization. Moreover, because the ministerial exception arises from the Constitution, rather than a statute, it applies with equal force to state and local laws prohibiting LGBT discrimination.
Third, Our Lady of Guadalupe provides practical guidance about what steps religious organizations should take to maximize the protection afforded by the ministerial exception.
Dozens of Christian organizations, not to mention other religious groups, filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the Supreme Court to defer to an organization’s good-faith claims that certain employees’ positions are “ministerial.” While two members of the Court— Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas—defended that view in a concurring opinion, the majority stopped short of holding that an organization’s good-faith classification is all that’s necessary for a ministerial exception. Even so, the majority placed considerable weight on the organization’s perspective, noting that “a religious institution’s explanation of the role of [its] employees in the life of the religion in question is important.”
In the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the court relied on the schools’ mission statements, faculty handbooks, and codes of conduct. These documents, the court held, provided abundant evidence that religious instruction and spiritual formation “lay at the core of the mission of the schools.” The court also cited the employment contracts signed by the teachers, which explained “in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility.”
The takeaway is clear: religious organizations of all types must define and articulate their core mission, then carefully and thoughtfully link employee responsibilities and duties—the things an employee does—to the mission. Employees' performance evaluations should be clearly connected to the mission and the organization should be able to show how the employees play a vital role in carrying out its religious goals.
The dissenting opinion in Our Lady of Guadalupe offers lessons for religious organizations, too. The dissenting justices warned that religious organizations will “discriminate widely and with impunity for reasons wholly divorced from religious beliefs.” To avoid acting out the worst fears of the dissenting justices and the broader secular society, religious organizations should resist the temptation to weaponize the ministerial exception for their culture war battles. The ministerial exception is not a license to mistreat employees. Religious organizations must act in good faith when identifying employees’ duties and roles and their relationship to the organization’s mission.
Christian organizations committed to love, grace, and integrity should treat the ministerial exception as a tool to be used with care and compassion, and in a manner consistent with their other commitments to employees. The exception should be deployed only where necessary to protect an organization’s ability to carry out its mission. Among other things, that means religious organizations should develop—and follow—comprehensive policies and procedures for resolving disputes outside the courts, either internally or with the help of religious authorities or mechanisms for dispute resolution.
These procedures should be crafted to align with biblical values of humility, mercy, and reconciliation. That way, the ministerial exception will function not as a spotlight exposing culture war hostilities, but as a beacon highlighting the gospel’s ability to transform human relationships and bring peace where no secular court ever could.
John Melcon is a judicial law clerk at the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Later this year he will join the religious organization's practice group at Sherman & Howard, LLC in Colorado Springs.
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