U.S. Supreme Court Reaffirms and Expands Ministerial Exception

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A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the consolidated case of Our Lady of Guadalupe School Morrissey-Berru St. James School v. Biel clarified and broadened the “ministerial exception” that prohibits civil courts from intervening in employment disputes involving employees engaged in religious activities.


A 2012 Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC upheld the ministerial exception and established four factors for considering whether employees are ministers:

  1. Whether the employee holds the title of minister or holds a ministerial certification.
  2. Whether the employee has formal educational training in religious subjects.
  3. Whether the employee has represented himself or herself as a minister.
  4. Whether the employee’s duties carry out the religious mission of his or her employer.

Rather than establishing a rigid formula, the Court said that these factors should all be considered when making a ministerial exception determination. Following Hosanna-Tabor, courts routinely but irregularly applied these factors, leading to the consolidation of two employment discrimination lawsuits brought against two Catholic schools in the Los Angeles area that resulted in the Court’s latest ruling on the ministerial exception.

Case #1: Morrissey-Berru v. Our Lady of Guadalupe School

Agnes Morrissey-Berru was a teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach for almost 20 years before being informed that her contract was not being renewed.  She filed suit in federal district court for age discrimination; the court dismissed the suit on ministerial exception grounds.

Case #2: Biel v. St. James School

Kristen Beil was a lay teacher at St. James School in Torrance for a year and a half before receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. Shortly after she disclosed her diagnosis to the school, she was informed that her contract would not be renewed. She filed suit against the school, alleging that she was dismissed for requesting a leave of absence to receive breast cancer treatment. A federal district court also dismissed her suit on ministerial exception grounds.

Both lawsuits were reinstated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which reasoned that the application of the ministerial exception was usually applied to employees that had a “religious leadership” role, which the Court did not believe applied to the two teachers. The schools appealed the Ninth Circuit’s reinstatement of the teachers’ lawsuits to the U.S. Supreme Court, which considered both cases as a consolidated claim.

SCOTUS Decision

In its July 8, 2020, decision, the Supreme Court harkened back to Hosanna-Tabor, saying that the Court never intended for a rigid, formulaic application of the four factors to be considered when determining a ministerial exception — a path the Ninth Circuit took in error, resulting in what the Court called a “distorted analysis.”

In contrast to the Ninth Circuit’s approach, the Supreme Court insisted that, “What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.” Upon weighing the teachers’ job responsibilities and how that work related to each school’s religious mission, the Court found that “educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.” Therefore, the Court held that the teachers in both cases were “ministers” for purposes of the ministerial exception, finding that “their core responsibilities as teachers of religion were essentially the same” as the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor.

The Court noted that whether or not an employee holds the title of “minister” is not dispositive in and of itself, since some faiths do not even use that title. Writing for the 7-2 majority, Justice Alito opined, “When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”

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