On July 8, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that teachers of religious instruction at private religious schools are barred from bringing employment discrimination claims against their employer. In doing so, the Court clarified and expanded upon the “ministerial exception” previously articulated by the Court in 2012. In 2012, the Court had recognized that religious entities enjoyed a constitutionally protected right to make employment decisions regarding important positions (“ministers”). With this ruling, the Court has clarified that the “ministerial exception” does not just apply to those with “minister” in their titles. The case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, can be found here.
In the majority’s 7-2 decision, the Court first noted the importance that school teachers play in private religious schools:
The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission. Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.
In considering this case, the Court was asked to develop a set of guidelines to determine whether the ministerial exception applied and it declined to do. Rather, the Court noted that “a variety of factors may be important.” What matters, according to the Court, is not what title the employee has but rather “what an employee does.”
In looking at elementary school teachers at private catholic schools, the Court viewed such teachers as being responsible for “providing instruction in all subjects, including religion,” and “members of the school staff who were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the faith.” In other words, they were viewed as teachers who “performed vital religious duties.”
The Court resisted adopting a rigid formula, to guide what employees might fall within the ministerial exception, and therefore, anyone hoping for further guidance is going to have to dig a bit deeper to draw out a general rule. Nonetheless, the justices, in voting 7-2, have signaled that this decision gives broad power to religious schools to hire and fire employees who carry out important religious functions.
The ruling follows the Supreme Court’s other recent decision that gay and transgender workers have protection from employment discrimination on the job under federal law. When read together, these two cases appear to signal that the Court is carving out an exception for religious institutions with respect to coverage under civil rights laws. Given the First Amendment aspect of the case, there is no reason to think that a Connecticut court looking at this issue under state law would come to a different conclusion than the U.S. Supreme Court.
In fact, Connecticut has adopted a similar exception in a 2011 case. Further, Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 46a-81p provides that the rules prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation do not apply to a “religious corporation, entity, association, educational institution or society with respect to the employment of individuals to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, entity, association, educational institution or society of its activities or with respect to matters of discipline, faith, internal organization or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law which are established by such corporation, entity, association, educational institution or society.”
Private religious schools should still be cautious about the employment decisions that they make. The ministerial exception may bar a discrimination or harassment claim in certain situations but it may not bar other claims from proceeding, particularly if they existed under “common law.” Nevertheless, schools should also be mindful that the broad protections being conferred by the U.S. Supreme Court do give such schools broad latitude in their employment decisions without being constrained by state or federal anti-discrimination laws.