Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that two teachers at religious schools could not pursue claims of age and disability discrimination in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. This decision relied heavily on the ministerial exception to anti-discrimination laws. The ministerial exception is rooted in the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, and disallows legal claims against religious schools by their employees who carry out religious functions. The ministerial exception is intended to protect churches from government influence, but the line deciding who is considered a “minister” is not always clear.
In this case, the Supreme Court applied the ministerial exception to two teacher-employees who carried out important religious functions, but were not otherwise considered “ministers.” The teachers taught religion in their classrooms, prayed and worshipped with their students, and had their performance measured on religious bases. Educating young people in their faith is at the core of a private religious school’s mission. For this reason, the two teacher-employees qualified as “ministers” under the ministerial exception, and therefore were not allowed to bring anti-discrimination cases against their employer schools.
Though this case will have substantial implications on employees of religious organizations, it will have little to no impact on employees who work in the public sector. Public sector employees are still covered by the anti-discrimination laws at issue in Our Lady of Guadalupe School.