Wednesday, February 14, 2018
The Seventh Circuit ruled this week that the First Amendment's ministerial exception barred a Hebrew teacher's Americans with Disabilities Act claim against her employer, a Jewish school. The ruling is the first time the Seventh Circuit applied the ministerial exception.
The case, Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School, arose when Grussgott, a Hebrew teacher at the school, suffered memory and cognitive issues as a result of medical treatment for her brain tumor. During a call from a parent, Grussgott couldn't remember an event, and the parent taunted her about her memory loss. Grussgott's husband, who happens to be a rabbi, sent an e-mail from Grussgott's work account criticizing the parent for being disrespectful. The school fired her, and she sued under the ADA, arguing that she was fired because of her cognitive issues resulting from the brain tumor.
The Seventh Circuit ruled that the ministerial exception applied and dismissed the case. Applying the "fact-intensive analysis" of Hosanna-Tabor, the court held that while Grussgott's title and the "substance reflected in that title" both tilted against applying the ministerial exception, Grussgott's use of the title and the religious functions she performed both tilted in favor. The court explained:
But Hebrew teachers at Milwaukee Jewish Day School were expected to follow the unified Tal Am curriculum, meaning that the school expected its Hebrew teachers to integrate religious teachings into their lessons. Grussgott's resume also touts significant religious teaching experience, which the former principal said was a crucial factor in the school hiring her in 2013. Thus, the substance of Grussgott's title as conveyed to her and as perceived by others entails the teaching of the Jewish religion to students, which supports the application of the ministerial exception here.
Grussgott undisputedly taught her students about Jewish holidays, prayer, and the weekly Torah readings; moreover, she practiced the religion alongside her students by praying with them and performing certain rituals, for example.
The court was careful to say that its analysis is holistic and fact-intensive, and not a rigid and mathematical application of the four "factors" from Hasanna-Tabor. On the other hand, the court also rejected "a purely functional approach to determining whether an employee's role is ministerial."
We read the Supreme Court's decision to impose, in essence, a totality-of-the-circumstances test. And it is fair to say that, under the totality of the circumstances in this particular case, the importance of Grussgott's role as a "teacher of  faith" to the next generation outweighed other considerations.