Public Schools

The “Ministerial Exception”: Who Counts as Clergy?

The First Amendment’s “ministerial exception” grants some religious organizations, such as houses of worship and religious schools, an exemption from civil rights laws that allows them to hire, manage, and fire their clergy as they choose.

But some religious extremists are trying to vastly expand this exception to apply to employees that have a minimal, if any, religious role, such as secular teachers, guidance counselors, and administrative staff. The result? Workers lose legal protection and can easily be fired for being LGBTQ, for the color of their skin or fighting racism, for being disabled or sick, or even just approaching retirement age.

The Supreme Court expanded the exemption in 2012 and 2020. AU fights to protect non-ministerial employees of religious organizations from violations of their civil rights.

What you need to know

Get a Divorce or Lose Your Job

Shelly Fitzgerald, a guidance counselor for 15 years at her alma mater Catholic high school, was given an ultimatum: resign, dissolve her marriage to her wife, stay quiet and let her contract lapse at year’s end, or be fired. AU represented Shelly against her former school, which claimed that it had a right to fire her despite her secular position and being protected by anti-discrimination laws.

Rampant Sexism & Discrimination

Janay Garrick was a teacher in the communications department at Moody Bible Institute who began experiencing and witnessing rampant sex discrimination at the college. She filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination, which the college moved to dismiss, arguing that the church-autonomy doctrine and ministerial exception barred her claims. AU filed a brief on Janay’s behalf in September 2023.

Who’s Next?

In 2016, 18.5% of hospitals were religiously affiliated, with 9.4% being owned by a Catholic organization, 5.1% affiliated with a Catholic group, and 4% with a non-Catholic religious group. Expanding the ministerial exception could impact scores of nurses, doctors, and even the workers in the hospitals’ gift shop and strip employees of important civil rights protections.

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