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Churches not exempt from employment discrimination law, UUA says

UUA joins amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court case to limit use of 'ministerial exception.'
By Elaine McArdle
12.19.11

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The Supreme Court building

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide by June a case about the “ministerial exception” to laws prohibiting discrimination in employment. (Architect of the Capitol)

A disabled woman teaching at a religious elementary school is fired, and claims it is because of her disability. She files a claim for employment discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Relying on something called the “ministerial exception,” the school insists that federal discrimination law doesn’t apply in this situation because the teacher—who mostly taught regular subjects such as math and English—also taught religion, is a commissioned minister, and leads students in prayer.

Should the school be exempt from discrimination laws in this situation?

The Unitarian Universalist Association says no, and signed on to a friend-of-the-court filing, or amicus brief, in support of the teacher.

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC is a closely watched case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in early October and—depending on what the court decides—could have a huge impact on the way churches and other religious organizations handle employment matters.

“We were particularly pleased to sign on to this amicus brief,” said Kay Montgomery, executive vice president of the UUA. “The decision was a nuanced one, and we believe that it’s important for the UUA to speak out in support of people with disabilities.”

The ministerial exception to employment law was established to give religious groups the freedom to hire and fire people performing religious functions, in order to uphold the tenets of their particular faith. For example, it’s generally illegal to discriminate against someone based on gender. However, in an oft-cited example, the Catholic Church does not permit women to serve as priests, and the church is free from a discrimination claim due to the ministerial exception to federal employment laws.

“The rationale is that [the ministerial exception] lets religious organizations practice their religion and convey their beliefs without being subject to employment discrimination laws,” explained Tom Bean, outside general counsel for the UUA.

In the Hosanna-Tabor case, many churches and religious institutions have taken the opposite position from the UUA. Supporting the school’s decision to invoke the ministerial exception with amicus groups on the opposite side of the UUA are groups of Roman Catholics, Mormons, Presbyterians, United Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus, United Sikhs, Muslims, Episcopalians, Reform Jews, and Orthodox Jews. They hope the high court will hold that the ministerial exception applies not only to religious leaders but also to others within a religious organization, which would give them broad-based protection from discrimination lawsuits.

But the UUA has joined with others, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, that are asking the court to construe the ministerial exception narrowly in order to protect as many people as possible from discrimination.

In this case, the teacher filed a discrimination claim, and the church filed a motion to dismiss based on the ministerial exception. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sided with the teacher, and the church appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The UUA joined this because it supports anti-discrimination laws,” said Bean. Among the arguments in the amicus brief are that the ministerial exception should not be allowed to immunize conduct unrelated to religion—in this case, the firing of a teacher—and also that the exception should not prevent the courts from examining the reasons that a church fired a particular person; otherwise, the exception gives blanket protection to religious organizations in their employment actions.

“A church might say, ‘We’re firing this woman for religious reasons.’ If the ministerial exception is going to allow the school to win a motion to dismiss, then you can’t even determine whether their stated reason [for the firing] was a pretext,” said Bean.

The Rev. Naomi King, a Unitarian Universalist minister, blogs about a number of topics, including this one. She said she applauds the UUA’s decision to sign onto this brief, because it affirms the association’s commitment to acceptance and inclusion of all, including those with disabilities.

“What I hope as an association is that we’ll take even more action in making sure that we aren’t allowing some of our congregations and communities to perhaps slide by on the ministerial exception,” King said.

For now, no one can predict with accuracy what the court will do. “It’s a very interesting case,” said Bean, noting that the Supreme Court currently is comprised of six Catholics and three Jews. The decision could be handed down anytime between now and June, he said.


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