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Harlan Institute » Supreme Court Unanimously Finds in Favor of Church in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC
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Supreme Court Unanimously Finds in Favor of Church in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC

January 11th, 2012

This morning, Chief Justice Roberts handed down an opinion in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of a unanimous Court. Overturning the Sixth Circuit’s holding for the EEOC, the Court found that the First Amendment Free Exercise clause protects the Church from an anti-discrimination lawsuit following the termination of a teacher diagnosed with narcolepsy.
In this case, the Court settled a Circuit Split regarding a judicially-created loophole to the Americans with Disabilities Act called the “ministerial exception.” The exception, in short, protects religious institutions from being sued under the federal anti-discrimination statute based on the rationale that a religious institutions’ hiring and firing decisions fall within their Constitutional right to free exercise of religion. While courts agree that religious leaders are barred from suit, there was disagreement as to the scope of the ministerial exception.
The Supreme Court held today that Perich, a teacher at a religious school who taught mostly secular subject matter, falls within the ministerial exception and therefore cannot sue her former employer, Hosanna-Tabor Church, under the ADA.
In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts provides a history lesson on the “[c]ontroversy between church and state over religious offices,” from the Magna Carta to the framing of the First Amendment Free Exercise clause. Within this framework, the Court affirmed the existence of the ministerial exception and held that the exception “is not limited to the head of a religious congregation.” The Court refused, however, to adopt a bright line test to determine who would fall within the exception and instead found that, based on the facts of the case, Perich constitutes an individual who the Church held out as a “minister.” On these grounds, the Sixth Circuit’s holding was reversed, barring Perich and the EEOC from going forward with their discrimination law suit against Hosanna-Tabor.