The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that there was a “ministerial exception” to discrimination laws, protecting religious organizations from any discrimination suit brought by an employee classified as a “minister.” While this is convenient for religious institutions who are protected from the risk of being sued for employment discrimination, this is less so for the employees who might otherwise be protected. Now, two suits are heading to the United States Supreme Court that could test the legality and limits of this exception.
The ministerial exception is based on an interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which prevents anyone classified as a “minister” from suing for job discrimination. In both cases being taken up by the Supreme Court, the employers are religiously affiliated schools who fired teachers, allegedly due to discriminatory bias. In one case, the alleged discrimination was based on the teacher’s age; in the other, it was based on a disability claim because the teacher was diagnosed with cancer.
In both cases, the fired teachers claimed that their positions did not fit the criteria for a “minister” under the ministerial exception. This is based on their job titles, training, and daily duties, which were those of educators, not ministers. Nevertheless, their employers are claiming the ministerial exception should be extended to them. If the employers win, it could severely restrict who can bring discrimination suits against religious organizations, bringing a much broader selection of employees under the umbrella of the ministerial exception. Alternately, if the employees win, it could pose danger for the ministerial exception itself, potentially impacting religious organizations throughout the country.
If you need any help starting your church or religious organization, or have questions about applying for tax-exempt status, you’ll need an attorney who thoroughly understands the religious organization law and its tax implications. The non-profit law attorneys at Wingate, Kearney, & Cullen, LLP have offices in Brooklyn and Long Island, New York. The firm is experienced in incorporating religious organizations and applying for tax-exempt status. For more information or to schedule a consultation, call (718) 852-5900 or fill out our contact form.