U.S. Supreme Court to Rule on Ministerial Exception to Discrimination Laws

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in an important case for religious organizations: how far the First Amendment-based “ministerial exception” extends to preempt federal employment discrimination laws.

In its simplest form, the ministerial exception holds that the federal discrimination laws don’t apply to religious organizations in their employment decisions regarding religious positions. The essence is that the government cannot dictate who a church can or cannot hire or fire to perform the church’s religious functions, even if those decisions violate the federal employment discrimination laws.

The Supreme Court is now deciding the issue occupying more of a gray area: does this exception extend to a religious school that fired a teacher who not only taught religion classes and led prayer, but who also taught a full secular curriculum? In other words, does the exception extend not only to religious leaders, but also to other employees further removed from spiritual leadership?

A ruling will probably not be handed down for several months. However, in the meantime, it’s important to differentiate this First Amendment-based exception exempting the decision from all federal discrimination laws from Title VII’s statutory exception that allows “religious organizations” to discriminate based on religion, but not any other protected factor.

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