Friday, April 1, 2011

ADA Ministerial Exception Hits SCOTUS - COTW #34

On Monday, the Supreme Court announced it would hear Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC which should clarify the Americans with Disabilities Act's (ADA's) "ministerial exception." The ADA prohibits discrimination against, and mandates reasonable accommodations for, individuals with disabilities. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution keeps government away from operational decisions of churches. Do you see the conflict?

And thus, courts recognize the ministerial exception to the ADA, excluding churches from the ADA... sometimes. In the case of say Catholic Priests, it's a no-brainer, the government can't tell the church who its priests will be. But what if its a teacher at a Christian school who teaches secular courses, but has some religious duties as well? How should those cases be decided?

That is precisely the issue in Hosanna-Tabor Church. As the Church's petition to the Supreme Court frames the Question Presented:
Whether the ministerial exception applies to a teacher at a religious elementary school who teaches the full secular curriculum, but also teaches daily religion classes, is a commissioned minister, and regularly leads students in prayer and worship.
The Church won at the trial court level but the Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the ministerial exception did not apply in this circumstance.

So, what test did the Sixth Circuit apply (and for my Pennsylvania readers, I'll note that this is the same test currently applied in our Third Circuit)? They applied the "primary duties" test:
[A]n employee is considered a minister if the employee’s primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship.
But, other circuits have resolved these issues using a less rigid model, holding that courts should look at all of the employee's duties (not just "primary" ones), and the nature of the underlying dispute. Still other circuits have yet to enunciate a specific test.

Hopefully, the Supreme Court will bring some clarity as to when the ministerial exception applies. For more information, including briefs, opinions, and other coverage, see SCOTUSblog.

Posted by Philip Miles, an attorney with McQuaide Blasko in State College, Pennsylvania in the firm's civil litigation and labor and employment law practice groups.