Ministerial exception rule is being abused

When a teacher at St. James Catholic School in Southern California requested a leave of absence to receive treatment for her breast cancer, she was subsequently fired (“Teacher with cancer can sue,” San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 19).  The school said it would be unfair to students to have two teachers in one year.

A lower court held that the school had the right to fire her because she was effectively a minister. But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals correctly overruled that decision. Putting aside the fact that the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the claim is ridiculous on its face since the teacher had no training in Catholic pedagogy and the school had no religious requirements for the position.  Would the same school claim that an observant Jew or Muslim was a minister as well?

It’s necessary to look back to 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC that the First Amendment allows religious employers to discriminate against their employees without any court review.  (EEOC is the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.)  By doing so, the high court permitted religious schools to enjoy absolute freedom to choose their ministers.  It wasn’t long after that they began to abuse the right.

For example, a Catholic school district in Montana in 2014 fired a teacher for becoming pregnant outside of marriage. Ten other teachers in Catholic schools across the nation were fired for the same reason.  The schools all said they had the right to do so because of ministerial exception.  I realize that there is a distinct difference between becoming pregnant and developing breast cancer.  But I submit that religious schools will take advantage of the ministerial exception shield.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)


2 Replies to “Ministerial exception rule is being abused”

  1. I would have decided Hosanna Tabor differently — surprised that the SCt was 9-0 in finding that the First Amendment exempts churches from the employment discrimination laws in selecting a minister. Probably, the SCt justices were afraid of the politically dangerous result of requiring Catholic churches, Orthodox Jewish congregations and Muslim congregations to accept women as fully-equal ministers. In my opinion, the correct reading of the First Amendment would subject religious institutions to employment discrimination laws (so long as the purpose of the law was to prevent discrimination rather than to damage a particular church).

    In any event, seems clear that the St. James lay teacher is not a “minister” w/in the ministerial exception.


  2. Labor Lawyer: I agree with your analysis. The U.S. Supreme Court is reluctant to interfere with any thing even remotely religious. The latest example of a potential case is yeshivas in New York City. Many of which are violating New York State law about offering a curriculum substantially equivalent to that provided by public schools. We’ll see what happens.


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