Legal E-Bulletin - January 2012

The Ministerial Exception to the ADA

This month, the United States Supreme Court decided its first Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) case since 2005, Hosanna Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C.. The Supreme Court considered whether the ADA should apply to a private religious school in an employment dispute with its teacher. This case was previewed in our October 2011 e-bulletin.

Cheryl Perich was a teacher at Hosanna Tabor Church and School and was designated as a minister by the Church. She was coming off disability leave and attempted to return to work. The school had filled her position in the meantime so it asked Perich to stay home while it figured out a possible plan of return for her. The school principal told Perich she would likely be fired, and Perich told her she would pursue her legal options if they could not compromise. The school board considered her actions insubordinate and eventually fired her for this reason.

The ADA prohibits employers from retaliating against their employees for asserting their rights under the ADA. The school terminated Perich in response to her legal threats. However, lower courts have carved out an exception to civil rights laws like the ADA in recognition of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. This exception is called the ministerial exception. The courts do not want to interfere with how a religious organization selects or deals with its ministerial employees. This exception does not just apply to ordained ministers. It can apply to any employee whose primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, or supervision of religious orders, rituals, or worship.

The Supreme Court agreed that the ministerial exception existed and applied it to this case in ruling for the church. "Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister... 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." Allowing the government to have a say in these decisions would violate not just the church's First Amendment right to the free exercise of its religion, it would also violate the First Amendment's Establishment clause, which prohibits government involvement in such religious decisions.

The Supreme Court ruled that the ministerial exception applied to Mrs. Perich, but refused to adopt a rigid formula to determine whenever an employee qualifies as a minister. It noted that the church had commissioned her as a minister, and she had to undergo religious training to qualify for her position. She held herself out as a minister of the church and took advantage of income tax breaks based on religious exemptions. The Court also had reviewed her religious duties and teaching of religious classes. It decided that the federal appellate court that considered the case had erred in putting too much emphasis on Perich's secular duties. Even though Perich only spent 45 minutes each work day performing the religious functions of her job, the Supreme Court ruled that determining whether the ministerial exception applied was "not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch".

The Supreme Court's decision in this case regarding the ministerial exception is limited to employment discrimination cases. It noted that it is not a ruling on whether the exception bars other types of lawsuits such as a breach of contract dispute.

The contents of this e-bulletin were developed by the Southwest ADA Center under a grant from the Department of Education, NIDRR grant number H133A110027.  However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government. The information provided is intended solely as guidance and is neither a determination of your legal rights or responsibilities under the ADA, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA.