Ministerial Exception Interpreted in Ohio Employment Discrimination Case

The Supreme Court held 9-0 in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar suits brought on behalf of ministers against their churches, claiming termination in violation of employment discrimination laws. The Court also held that because the respondent in this case was a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception, the First Amendment requires dismissal of her employment discrimination suit against her religious employer.

Even with January 2012 Supreme Court ruling that churches and other religious groups must be free to choose their leaders without government interference, an Ohio federal judge ruled in favor of an unmarried Catholic schoolteacher who was fired after becoming pregnant. U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel held in Dias v. Archdiocese of Cincinnati that Christa Dias could proceed with a discrimination suit, even with the ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws. The court found that Dias, unlike the Lutheran schoolteacher at the center of the Hosanna-Tabor ruling, should not be considered a minister, and was therefore not barred from bringing her claim. This ruling by the Ohio court is one of the first to interpret the ministerial exception under the new Supreme Court decision.

The teacher in Hosanna-Tabor had the professional title of “minister,” taught religious courses, had significant religious training, and led the students in prayer. Dias, on the other hand, had no religious title or training and was not permitted to teach religious doctrine. Judge Spiegel concluded that the Supreme Court did not articulate a test for determining who qualifies as a ministerial employee. In comparing the facts the Court used to determine that the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor was a minister against the characteristics of Dias’ role in the school, Judge Spiegel held that Dias was not a minister within the definition and therefore was not barred by the exception.

Lower courts have recognized a ministerial exception before, but in Hosanna-Tabor, the lower courts concluded that it did not apply. Chief Justice Roberts, who authored the opinion overruling the lower courts decisions, explained that while the court was not ready to apply a “rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister… [the church] held [the teacher] out as a minister… and tasked her with performing that office ‘according to the Word of God and the confessional standards of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as drawn from the Sacred Scriptures.’”

Dias was technology coordinator for two Catholic schools and is not Catholic. She was fired after she became pregnant through artificial insemination and alleges the archdiocese breached her employment contract and that her termination amounted to pregnancy discrimination under Title VII and state law. The archdiocese moved to dismiss the suit, which was postponed until the decision in Hosanna-Tabor was announced. After the Court ruled that there was a ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws, the archdiocese argued that Dias’ case fit within the ministerial exception because schools’ designation their teachers as Catholic role models, which fits within the meaning of the exception. Judge Spiegel disagreed and Dias’ employment discrimination case goes on.

The question remains as to whether the Supreme Court will find it necessary to create a rigid formula for the ministerial exception in the future in response to the varying applications at the lower court level.

Click here to read more about Dias. For the full Hosanna-Tabor opinion, click here.