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Supreme Court reaffirms churches right to discriminate

By Frederick Sparks

In their infinite wisdom, the Supremes have decided that the long recognized “ministerial exception”, which bars employment discrimination claims by ministers against churches, also applies to anyone within a church who “holds a title representing a significant degree of religious training followed by a formal process of commissioning”, has “accepted the formal call to religious service”,  and has  “job duties reflected a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out it’s mission.”

The plaintiff in the case was a Lutheran school “called Teacher” (distinguished from lay teachers)  who developed narcolepsy and took a medical leave.  At the end of the leave she notified the school that she would be returning and was told her position had been filled by a “lay teacher”.  She subsequently filed claim with the EEOC under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The school/church raised the ministerial exception, with which the District Court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of the school.  After the 6th Circuit claimed the ministerial exception was applied to the plaintiff in the lower court too broadly, the supreme court “clarified” the issue in favor of the school.

In addition to this troublesome expansive definition, the ministerial exception in its previous form rested on a specious Free Exercise basis.  Understandable if a minister (or minister-lite) questions or contradicts the tenets of the faith.  But to bar discrimination claims on grounds not having to do with religion is another example of excessive deference to free exercise.