Monday, March 22, 2010
Earlier this month, the Sixth Circuit issued an important opinion reversing a district court's grant of summary judgment that a retaliation claim brought by a teacher against a religious school could not be heard by the court under the ministerial exception. The case is EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School.
The ministerial exception in the ADA provides that religious entities can prefer individuals of a particular religion or can require all applicants and employees to conform to the religious tenants of the organization. It's a pretty narrow exception, and while it's rooted in the First Amendment's guarantees of religious freedom, it's not likely to have much of an impact on the application of the ADA to religious entities in most circumstances because as a practical matter, most religions don't have prohibitions or practice requirements related to ability, although I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions. Still, in lots of areas and by many courts, the ministerial exception has been interpreted to apply beyond the statutory language--barring any action brought by a ministerial employee against a religious entity, even where church doctrine does not appear to be issue, like in the recent Ninth Circuit case Alcazar v. Corp. of Catholic Archbishop of Seattle concerning the Fair Labor Standards Act and the wages of a seminarian who did janitorial work.
The district court had found that the school was a religious entity, and the Sixth Circuit agreed with that analysis, but disagreed that the teacher's duties made her a ministerial employee. The key issue was not the title that the school gave her, but whether her primary duties were secular or religious. The school differentiated between lay or contract teachers and "called" teachers who it considers ministers, in the method of hiring and the terms of their employment. Called teachers generally had greater job security. The duties of a called teacher, barely differed from those of a contract teacher, though. This teacher spent only forty-five minutes of every seven-hour school day in religious activities, and the Sixth Circuit held that this was simply not enough to make her a ministerial employee. Her primary duties were secular, and there was no indication that the school relied upon her to indoctrinate students into the school's theology.
So when the school would not allow her to come back from leave related to a disability and fired her for "threatening to take legal action" and later taking legal action, that alleged retaliation was not barred by the ministerial exception. The court noted that the school did not say when it was terminating the teacher that it was doing so for failing to follow church doctrine or that the church required her to engage in particular dispute resolution procedures. That might have led to a different outcome.
The court's analysis of the ministerial exception here seems right on to me. Neither the teacher's alleged disability nor her assertion of rights under the ADA had any relationship to the church's doctrine, nor did the school ever claim (at least until the appeal) that it did. And although the primary duties analysis might allow for a broader exception than one based solely on actual interference with religious practice, there was no real difference between what she did and what teachers who didn't have to comply with the church's teaching or be members of the church had to do.