Certiorari granted by the United States Supreme Court on March 28, 2011 Oral arguments scheduled for October 5, 2011
Case decided January 11, 2012
- The Parties
- The Questions Presented
- Case Background
- The Law
- Justice Voting History
- The Arguments
- Oral Arguments
- The Court's Opinion
- Blog Topics
|Petitioner: Hosanna-Tabor Church||
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Can a church discriminate against a teacher because of her disability, in light of the so-called “ministerial exception” whereby federal employment laws do not apply to religious leaders or church employees?
From 1999 to 2005, Cheryl Perich taught elementary school at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School. While Perich taught secular subject matter to her classes, Hosanna-Tabor generally offers students a “Christ-centered education” that involves religious classes, chapel services, as well as prayer and devotional time led by teachers. By the time Perich was terminated from her teaching position in 2005, she had earned “called” teacher status, which requires completing religious colloquy classes and being chosen by the voting members of the church congregation. In 2004, Perich took a medical leave of absence from her employment with Hosanna-Tabor when she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. After Perich’s diagnosis, doctors assured her that she would be able to return to teaching after receiving proper treatment. The principal of Hosanna-Tabor assured her that she would still have a position at the school after her disability leave. Toward the end of Perich’s leave though, the principal and school board became concerned that Perich’s disability would interfere with her ability to care for her students and voiced their concern to the congregation. The congregation voted to offer Perich a peaceful release agreement where she could resign in exchange for partial payment of her health care fees. Perich rejected the agreement and informed her employer that she intended to return to work. On February 22, 2005, Perich returned to resume her teaching duties but was told that there was no longer a position for her at Hosanna-Tabor. Soon after, she retained a lawyer and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging unlawful discrimination and a violation of her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The EEOC informed Hosanna-Tabor of the complaint, and Perich was officially terminated from her teaching position. The EEOC and Perich filed suit against Hosanna-Tabor for unlawful discrimination based on her disability.
At the District Court
When the EEOC and Perich filed suit against Hosanna-Tabor in the District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, the court dismissed the case based on Hosanna-Tabor’s argument that Perich’s claim falls within the “ministerial exception” to the ADA. The ministerial exception means that, generally, federal employment discrimination law does not apply to religious leaders. The rationale for this exception is that an employment discrimination lawsuit against a church would interfere with the church’s First Amendment right to choose its religious leaders. The court concluded that Perich, as a teacher at a religious school, fell within this exception and therefore, could not file suit against Hosanna-Tabor.Opinion of the Court of Appeals
Perich and the EEOC appealed the District Court’s decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Sixth Circuit reversed the previous decision, holding that Perich was not covered by the ministerial exception, because she spent a majority of her time performing secular duties--that is teaching non-religious classes. Although Hosanna-Tabor gave Perich the title of “commissioned minister,” the court placed more importance on the fact that Perich used secular teaching materials and taught non-religious subjects to her classes. The Court remanded the case, which allowed Perich to move forward with her lawsuit against Hosanna-Tabor.
While the Sixth Circuit held that Perich was not a “ministerial employee” for the purposes of this exception to the ADA, Judge Eric Clay acknowledged in his opinion that some other circuit courts use differing standards to determine who qualifies for the ministerial exception. Because the decision of one federal circuit court is not binding on the others, this creates a “circuit split” that can be resolved by Supreme Court ruling on the issue at hand. Hosanna-Tabor appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the Sixth Circuit wrongly interpreted the ministerial exception to the ADA and asking the Supreme Court to resolve the circuit split on how to define a ministerial employee. The Supreme Court granted the writ of certiorari and agreed to hear the case on March 28, 2011. Oral arguments are scheduled for October 5, 2011.(jump to the top of the page)
|Employment Div. v. Smith (1990)||Locke v. Davey (2004)||C.L.S. v. Martinez (2010)|
|Roberts||Not yet on Court||Not yet on Court||NC|
|Thomas||Not yet on Court||NC||NC|
|Ginsburg||Not yet on Court||C||C|
|Breyer||Not yet on Court||C||C|
|Alito||Not yet on Court||Not yet on Court||NC|
|Sotomayor||Not yet on Court||Not yet on Court||C|
|Kagan||Not yet on Court||Not yet on Court||Not yet on Court|
|C||The Justice voted that the statute was constitutional.|
|Yes, but…||The Justice voted with the majority, but disagreed about why.|
|NC||The Justice voted that the statute was unconstutional.|
|Not yet on Court||The Justice was not yet on the Court when the case was decided.|
Hosanna-Tabor Church (Petitioner)
Both parties agree that the ministerial exception to the ADA is necessary because religious groups have the right under the First Amendment to freely exercise religion. This includes the right to make decisions about how the church will be governed, and whom to appoint as religious leaders. The parties disagree, however, about how to determine which employees are covered by the ministerial exception. Hosanna-Tabor challenges the decision of the Sixth Circuit by pointing out that there is disagreement among the circuit courts as to how to determine which employees are covered by the ministerial exception. Hosanna-Tabor argues that the method used by the Sixth Circuit is vague and arbitrary, and that it invites the courts to meddle with religious groups.Hosanna-Tabor advocates an approach that involves looking at all of the circumstances of an employee’s situation on a case-by-case basis and determining whether she was a “ministerial employee” who performed religious functions. Based on this approach, Hosanna-Tabor argues that, if a court were to consider the details of Perich’s teaching job and the religious aspects of her employment, she should be covered by the ministerial exception and her lawsuit should be barred accordingly.
EEOC & Perich (Respondent)
Perich argues that the ministerial exception to the ADA does not apply to her, as she taught secular subjects and used non-religious teaching materials during her time at Hosanna-Tabor. While she did hold the title of “commissioned minister” and incorporate religion into her teachings a few times, Perich points out that her teaching duties were primarily non-religious. Therefore, because her employment discrimination case would not violate Hosanna-Tabor’s First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, Perich should be able to go forward with her lawsuit against the school.In urging the Supreme Court to affirm the Sixth Circuit’s decision, Perich and EEOC advocate the “primary duties” test to determine which religious employees fall within the ministerial exception. This test requires considering whether an employees main job responsibilities are religious or secular to decide who is a “ministerial employee.”
Write the Opinion - Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC Badge (200 Points)
Pretend you are the Justices of the Supreme Court. Vote as a class how this case should be decided, and write an opinion discussing how this case should be resolved. If your classmates do not all agree, write concurring and dissenting opinions to explore all of your different understandings of the case. Each opinion should be at least 250 words, and reference the text of the First Amendment and at least three of the cases listed in the Relevant Precedents section.Friend of the Court - Amicus Brief Badge (150 points)
Pretend that you are a lawyer and you represent either a religious school, or an atheist group. Write a 200 word Amicus (latin for Friend of the Court) Brief, arguing why the Court should consider the interests of your client. The goal of an amicus brief is to provide information to the court about the implications of their decision beyond the affect it will have on the two parties who appear before them. Be sure to include citations to the cases, and make a strong policy argument why your side should win.The Free Exercise Clause - First Amendment Badge (50 points)
The ministerial exception, as it applies to the Americans with Disabilities Act and other employment laws, is based on the principle that a court would be violating a religious institution’s First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion if the court interfered with the institution’s hiring and firing decisions. Do you agree with this rationale? How does maintaining the ability to make personnel decisions equate to the free exercise of religion? How might lawsuits from former employees infringe on this right? Write a blog post of at least 150 words exploring this issue.
EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor’s Effect on Religious Schools - Education Badge (50 points)
Imagine that you’re the director of a religiously-affiliated school. If the Court decided that an employee like Perich can sue the school after being terminated, how would might this affect you and your school? Would you have to make any changes to the curriculum or to the roles of teachers to protect your school from being sued? And if the Court finds that Perich cannot file suit because of the ministerial exception, how might your employees react to the decision? Which decision would be in your best interest? Write a blog post of at least 150 words exploring this issue.Discrimination & Religious Employees - Employees' Rights Badge (50 points)
Courts give great deference to churches, temples, mosques, and religious schools by considering them to be exempted from employment lawsuits. Could you foresee this deference ever being abused by a religious organization? If a court finds that Perich was, in fact, discriminated against because of her disability, should it matter who her employer was or whether she performed religious duties as a part of her job? Could a religious school intentionally choose not to hire an employee because he or she is gay, African-American, or disabled? Write a blog post of at least 150 words exploring this issue.Conflict between the Courts - Justice Badge (50 points)
While federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to all Americans, courts can interpret the words of these statutes to have different meanings. Because the rulings of each circuit court are not binding on other circuits, there can be direct conflicts between the circuits about how to interpret a particular law. Is it fair that federal laws are meant to apply to everyone equally, but a case based on a federal law could have a different outcome based on which court hears the case? Further, when the courts are divided, a Supreme Court ruling resolves the conflict and determines how the law must be interpreted. Sometimes, as with this case, the 13 judicial circuits are pretty evenly split on how to interpret the law; other times, however, a clear majority of judicial circuits supports a certain approach, while a minority of circuit courts disagree. When resolving a disagreement between the circuits, should the Supreme Court take into account how many courts support each side? Or should the Court focus only on words of the law itself? Write a blog post of at least 150 words exploring this issue.
Eliminating the Ministerial Exception? - Legislative Process Badge (50 points)
The ministerial exception does not come from the text of the statute itself, but instead, it was created by courts to resolve any possible conflicts with the First Amendment. What would happen if Congress were to amend the Americans with Disabilities Act to say: “This law shall apply to all employers, including churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, religious organizations, and religious schools.” Who would be able to challenge the constitutionality of an amendment like this that eliminates the ministerial exception? How might Congress defend the change if it were brought to court? Write a blog post of at least 150 words exploring this issue.
- Full opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
- Docket information at the Supreme Court: This page will be updated as more briefs are filed.