Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Who decides who is a minister?
In Hosanna-Tabor (2012), a teacher at a Lutheran elementary school was diagnosed and subsequently fired for having narcolepsy. Suing under the Americans With Disability Act, she claimed that the school had illegally discriminated against her on account of her condition. When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) upheld her suit, she appealed. The school claimed a Free Exercise “ministerial exemption” from employment laws, and the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the school. The fourth-grade teacher was a trained and certified instructor of religion, which she taught everyday in addition to academic subjects.
In that decision the SCOTUS recognized for the first time a ministerial exception (though lower federal courts had previously done so). This ruling sat side by side the 1990 Employment Division v. Smith decision regarding the use of peyote. This decision came even though the Obama Administration Justice Department (DOJ) argued against the school and maintained that the Free Exercise of religion did not even apply. Justice Roberts, writing for the unanimous Court, reprimanded DOJ for its “extreme position” that “the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.” This decision was, by the way, unanimous.
The details on these pending cases are different though similar. Two fired teachers in Roman Catholic schools in the same LA Archdiocese have claimed discrimination. In the Guadalupe case, the Roman Catholic elementary school fired a trained and certified catechist and who had taught fifth grade religion for several years. She filed an age-discrimination complaint with the EEOC and brought suit in federal district court in December 2016. The district court ruled against her citing the Hosanna-Tabor precedent but the Ninth Circuit ruled in her favor.
In the St. James School case, another Roman Catholic school fired a newly hired 5th grade teacher who was also a trained and certified as teacher of the faith. She was let go for poor management of the classroom and filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging discrimination for her disability (breast cancer). The Obama EEOC sided with the teacher, the federal district court cited Hosanna-Tabor and ruled against her in January 2017 and again was overturned by the Ninth Circuit.
The questions at issue are how much of a minister do you have to be and who decides if you are a minister. Though Hosanna-Tabor had provided more detail to support their claim, the cases will clarify the precedent and decide if churches and their schools are the ones who decide who is defined as a minister or not and by what criteria such claims can credibly be made. Stay tuned for more as oral arguments have already been made.