Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC

PETITIONER:Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School
RESPONDENT:Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al.

DOCKET NO.: 10-553
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 565 US (2012)
GRANTED: Mar 28, 2011
ARGUED: Oct 05, 2011
DECIDED: Jan 11, 2012

Douglas Laycock – for the petitioner
Leondra R. Kruger – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the federal respondent
Walter E. Dellinger, III – for the private respondent

Facts of the case

Cheryl Perich filed a lawsuit against the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich., for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act when they fired her after she became sick in 2004. After several months on disability, Perich was diagnosed and treated for narcolepsy and was able to return to work without restrictions. But she said the school at that point urged her to resign and, when she refused, fired her.

Perich filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which ruled in her favor and authorized a lawsuit against the school. Attorneys representing Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School argued that the “ministerial exception” under the First Amendment should apply in their client’s case. The exception gives religious institutions certain rights to control employment matters without interference from the courts. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the school, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned that ruling and remanded the case back to the lower court for a full trial on the merits. The court held that Perich’s role at the school was not religious in nature, and therefore the ministerial exception did not apply.


Does the ministerial exception, which prohibits most employment-related lawsuits against religious organizations by employees performing religious functions, apply to a teacher at a religious elementary school who teaches the full secular curriculum, but also teaches daily religion classes, is a commissioned minister, and regularly leads students in prayer and worship?

Media for Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 05, 2011 in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 11, 2012 in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I have our opinion this morning in Case Number 10-553, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School versus the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church operated a small school in Michigan for students in kindergarten through 8th grade.

The school had two types of teachers, Called teachers and Lay teachers.

Called teachers were regarded by the Church as having been called to their vocation by God.

To become a Called teacher, a candidate had to complete certain academic requirements, including a course of theological study.

Once Called, a teacher received the formal title “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.”

Lay teachers, by contrast, were not required to have theological training or even to be Lutheran.

Cheryl Perich was a Called teacher at Hosanna-Tabor.

In addition to teaching secular subjects like math and social studies, Perich taught a religion class, led her students in daily prayer and devotional exercises and took her students to a weekly school-wide chapel service.

Lay teachers did all this too when Called teachers were not available.

Now, in 2004, Perich was diagnosed with narcolepsy and went on disability leave.

When she thought she’d gotten better, she — she sought to return to teaching, but the Church said it no longer had a position for her and asked her to resign.

After Perich refused and showed up at the school anyway, she was told she would likely be fired.

Perich responded by threatening to take legal action.

A few weeks later, the Church did fire her, citing what it called here disruptive behavior and at that point, Perich did take legal action.

She filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC, alleging that by firing her, the Church had violated a federal law, the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA.

The EEOC sued the Church under the ADA, claiming that the Church had unlawfully retaliated against Perich for threatening legal action, and Perich joined that suit.

Invoking what is known as the ministerial exception, the Church argues that the employment discrimination suit cannot proceed.

It contends that enforcing the ADA here is barred by the First Amendment to the Constitution because such a suit would allow the Government to intrude into the employment relationship between a religious group and one of its ministers.

The question in this case is whether such a ministerial exception exists.

Now, controversy between church and State over religious offices is nothing new.

In fact, the issue was addressed in the very first clause of Magna Carta.

There, King John agreed and this, “The English church shall be free” and he accepted the Church’s “freedom of elections,” a right thought to be of the greatest necessity and importance.

That freedom, of course, did not survive the reign of Henry VIII and in 1534 the English monarch was made the head of the established church with authority to appoint its high officials.

Many in England later left for America precisely so that they could choose their own ministers here.

Even colonists, who continued to follow the Church of England after they arrived, often objected to the control exercise by the Crown over religious offices.

To cite just one example, in Virginia, there was a law that vested with the royal governor, the power to appoint ministers, but local groups often defied him by choosing ministers on their own.

It was against this background that our Nation adopted the First Amendment providing that Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Familiar with life under the established Church of England, the founding generations sought to foreclose the possibility of a national church by forbidding the establishment of religion and guaranteeing the free exercise thereof.

The Amendment’s Religion Clauses ensured that the new Federal Government, unlike the English Crown, would have no role in filling religious offices.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Now, until today, we have not had occasion to consider whether this core principle is implicated by a suit that alleges discrimination in employment and seeks the help of the Government in resolving that employment dispute.

We conclude that the ministerial exception is implicated in such a situation.

The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers.

Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister or punishing a Church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision.

Such action interferes with the internal governance of the Church, depriving the Church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.

By imposing an unwanted minister through an employment discrimination suit, the State infringes the Free Exercise Clause which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.

Giving the State the power to determine which individuals will — will minister to the faithful, also violates the Establishment Clause which prohibits Government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.

Now, having concluded that there is a ministerial exception grounded in the Religion Clauses, the next question is whether Perich was a minister.

Given all the circumstances of her employment, we hold that she was.

To begin with, Hosanna-Tabor held Perich out as a minister.

The Church issued her a “diploma of vocation” formally designating her a “Minister of Religion”.

That title represented a significant degree of religious training followed by a formal process of commissioning.

Perich also held herself out as a minister by accepting the formal call to religious services — religious service and even claiming a special housing allowance for those in the ministry.

Finally, Perich’s job duties reflected a role in convening the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.

As mentioned earlier, Perich taught a religion class, led her students in prayer and devotional exercises, and took her students to a weekly school-wide chapel services.

About twice a year, she led the chapel service herself, choosing the liturgies, selecting the hymns and delivering a short message based on verses from the Bible.

Now, it is true that these duties occupied only 45 minutes of her time in a typical school day, but the issue before us is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch.

As a source of religious instruction, Perich played an important part in transmitting the Lutheran faith to the next generation.

None of the factors I’ve discussed is determinative, but together, they lead us to conclude that Perich was a minister.

This suit, therefore, must be dismissed.

An order reinstating Perich at the school would plainly violate the Church’s freedom under the Religion Clauses to select its own ministers, so too would an award of pay, damages or attorney’s fees which would operate as a penalty on the Church for terminating an unwanted minister.

Granting Perich the relief she seeks would entail a determination that Hosanna-Tabor was wrong to have fired here and it is precisely such a ruling that is barred by the ministerial exception.

The interest of society in enforcing employment discrimination laws is plainly important, but so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carryout their mission.

When a minister, who has been fired, sues her church, alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us.

The Church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.

Our opinion is unanimous.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Alito has also filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Kagan joins.