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U.S. Supreme Court take on religious employers

In a 9-0 decision, the United States Supreme Court held in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Commission that a church school in Michigan was not required to pay damages to a teacher fired in a wrongful termination suit for an alleged violation of the Americans with Disability Act. This was due to the teacher also being considered a "called minister" at the school. By accepting this label, the teacher received a number of tax benefits that she would otherwise not received if she had not been a called minister.

The teacher in question had taken leave for narcolepsy, but during the course of the 6-month leave she was replaced and told she would be dismissed if she showed up for work. However, when it was learned that she had discussed the matter with an attorney, she was then fired for violating the church's policy of keeping such disputes out of the secular courts. Though such a firing would not have been permitted for most occupations, a court ruled that such a firing was acceptable under the "ministerial exception."

Religions are treated differently when it comes to employment because forcing a church to keep a minister on amounts to states interfering with the internal decisions of a religious organization. Though technically the woman could have been labeled a teacher as well as a minister, the U.S. Supreme Court was unwilling to interfere with the religious organization's right to label the job as such out of deference to the church's decisions concerning such matters.

Expect to see more cases concerning the ministerial exception and how it is applied in the future. The laws governing disability is already complex without distinguishing between religious employers and secular employers.

Source: The Atlantic, "When Is a Teacher a Minister? The Court will Let Us Know," by Garrett Epps, Jan. 11, 2012

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