The Ministerial Exception
In the first several weeks of January 2012, the Supreme Court made a ruling on the case of Hannah-Tabor v EEOC. This case examined the rules under which religious institutions (like churches) must operate in regards to the treatment of their workers, including hiring and firing practices. This case highlights the need for churches, especially those with staff paid to work with young people, to clearly define the role of a pastor or professional minister so that churches can understand which set of employment standards they must meet in staffing decisions.
The case of Hannah-Tabor v EEOC came about because of a situation where Cheryl Perich was employed by the Hosannah-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School as a “called” or “commissioned” minister of the church to teach classes. Due to Cheryl’s development of a medical condition, and subsequent choices by both Hosannah-Tabor and Cheryl Perich, Cheryl was terminated as an employee of the church/school. Consequently, Cheryl Perich decided to take legal action for her dismissal, filing a charge against Hannah-Tabor with the EEOC, and the EEOC brought a suit against Hannah-Tabor alleging that Cheryl’s termination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A District Court and Sixth Circuit court had had found themselves with opposing judgments to the case, hence the case’s appearance before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found in a unanimous vote) that Cheryl’s dismissal was legal because of the “ministerial exception” that appears as a part of the First Amendment. The “ministerial exception” precludes application of employment discrimination laws to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.
This is a big decision with big ramifications for those who work with young people! Why?
By allowing the “ministerial exception” the US Government effectively avoids interfering with the governance within a church. A church will continue to have the control over who personifies the beliefs of that church. Under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, churches (religious groups) have the right to shape its own faith and mission through it’s appointments. It is a comforting thought to know that religious institutions like the UMC have ultimate control over who they employ to guide growth and young Disciples in their faith journeys. However, the decision also means that religious institutions can dismiss employees for reasons that do not fall under the standard cloud of protection provided by other amendments. Also worthy of note, the Supreme Court very rarely reaches decisions unanimously! Since this decision was unanimous, it will likely stand for a long, long time.
In the United Methodist Church, we often refer to “every member as a minister.” Also, the Supreme Court’s decision is not limited to the heads of religious institutions. The Supreme Court also did not create a strict formula for identifying who qualifies as a minister under their ruling. This makes it important for those who work with young people within the UMC to have a clear definition of their role within their church or ministry context. How a church identifies its paid staff, as “Ministers”, “Directors”, or another title may affect a youth worker’s legal rights regarding their employment.
To help clarify why Cheryl Perich was identified as a “minister” the court found she had significant religious training followed by a commissioning within her church, she held out a special housing allowance on her taxes only allowed for ministers, and she performed important religious functions for her church based on her job duties and the church’s mission. For the UMC, and those employed to work with young people therein, one’s title and job description matters very much!
Clearly defining one’s role when working with young people has always been important for success in ministry. It appears that this decision increases the need for this type of definition even further, as what constitutes a “fireable” offense for a minister can be completely defined by a church.
For more information on the case please visit these links: