Ministerial exception abuse

Religious schools claim they can’t be sued by their teachers for violating the rights protecting teachers in public schools, citing ministerial exception (“Court to Rule On Bias Laws and Religion In Workplace,” The New York Times, Dec. 19).  So far, they’ve been able to get away with outrageous practices.  But hopefully that will change when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the matter.

The way it works is quite simple: By calling their employees ministers, the schools have what is essentially diplomatic immunity from suits.  In EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, the high court held that teachers can be fired even if they are a protected class.

But the First Amendment should not be allowed to be used as a shield against discrimination suits. To date, religious schools have received broad exemptions from government scrutiny and regulation. Too much religious liberty is as bad as none at all.  I hope that the high court finally rules in favor of teachers.  It’s a step long overdue.

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2 Replies to “Ministerial exception abuse”

  1. In my opinion, the statutory law and the SCt decisions re employment laws and religious institutions are analytically very screwed up and driven by political necessity.

    Religious institutions should get no special treatment re employment laws. To give religious institutions special treatment is — it seems to me — obviusly to violate the establishment clause. If Religion A — in its churches and/or schools — wants to have only white male officials, too bad for Religion A — they have to give equal treatment to black and female applicants. They can, of course, require that applicants know the substantive religious knowledge needed for the job. I’d even go so far as to say that they cannot require an applicant be a member of Religion A. In other words, no special treatment for religious institutions re employment laws.

    I’d probably go even a bit further and argue that churches do not qualify for non-profit tax treatment — at least so far as they offer religious services. Going to a church or synagogue service seems to me no more in the public interest than going to a movie theater. Some people want to go to church on Sunday, some people want to go to see a movie on Sunday. Society is no better off with one than with the other. To the extent that a church runs a non-religious school or offers psychological counseling or runs AA meetings or operates a hospital, then it qualifies for non-profit status. But, religious services themselves, no. Of course, I recognize that this view is a complete non-starter politically!


  2. Labor Lawyer: In light of the widespread abuse of ministerial exception, I agree with you. Apparently, a Catholic or Protestant school that hires a Jewish teacher, for example, can claim ministerial exception if it wants to violate that teacher’s rights. However, religious schools of all faiths disregard the law and get away with it. I’m thinking now of some yeshivas in New York City that do not offer a “substantially equivalent” education to that offered by public schools, which is what New York State law requires. Yet little is done.


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