A church-run school pressured a teacher to resign after she returned from an extended sick leave. When the teacher accused the school of unlawful discrimination and threatened to take legal action, the school fired her. The teacher then filed a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, arguing that the school retaliated against her in violation of her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The EEOC and the teacher sued the school in district court. The school contended that it fired the teacher for theological, not retaliatory, reasons: its religious belief required adherents to resolve disputes within the church instead of filing lawsuits. The school also argued that, even though she spent the bulk of her time teaching secular subjects, the teacher was a “commissioned minister” and that it could therefore fire her under the “ministerial exception,” which exempts religious institutions from civil-rights statutes with respect to the employment of ministers or employees akin to ministers.
The district court agreed with the school and granted summary judgment in its favor. The EEOC and the teacher appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, arguing that the teacher’s primary duties were not religious and, therefore, that her termination was not covered by the ministerial exception. The Sixth Circuit agreed with the teacher, finding both that her primary duties were secular and that a court would not have to analyze any church doctrine to resolve the teacher’s lawsuit. As a result, the court held that the ministerial exception did not bar the teacher’s claims and that the district court had improperly granted summary judgment to the school. The Supreme Court then agreed to review the case.
In August 2011, Americans United, joined by other civil-liberties organizations, filed an amicus brief in support of the teacher. We argued that the ministerial exception should be no broader than necessary, should be applied only when a religious entity’s acts are motivated by religious concerns, and should not immunize religious entities from liability for conduct unrelated to religion. We also argued that the exception must permit courts to determine when a religious justification is pretextual.
In January 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in the school’s favor. The Court held that (1) the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses create a ministerial exception to anti-discrimination laws, (2) the exception applies whether or not the employment decision at issue was actually motivated by religion, and (3) the teacher was a “minister” within the meaning of the exception because, among other factors, her position included religious duties and required religious training.