U.S. Supreme Court Reaffirms and Clarifies the “Ministerial Exception”

July 8, 2020

In a 7-2 majority opinion today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision that reaffirms and clarifies application of the “ministerial exception” doctrine to employment disputes.

The case at hand involved two Catholic elementary school teachers who alleged discrimination and wrongful termination. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the teachers, refusing to allow the school employers to raise the ministerial exception defense in these employment-related disputes. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and held that the schools properly raised the ministerial exception defense in these instances.

Importantly, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the ministerial exception that was recognized unanimously in its 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision. In its latest opinion, the Court clarified that its use of a set of four factors in Hosanna-Tabor were not a checklist that must be met in all cases for the ministerial exception to apply.

The majority clarified that the use of the title “minister” or other clerical titles is not necessary for the exception to apply. “What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.” All relevant factors and circumstances must be taken into account with importance given to the religious institution’s explanation of the employee’s role in the religion.

ECFA joined an amicus brief with several other ministry organizations in support of the religious schools in this case.

Click here for the full opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court and a press release here by The Becket Fund who successfully represented the religious schools before the Court.

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.