A recent ruling by the Supreme Court has brought to light a legal issue regarding employees of religious institutions that was fairly unknown. “Ministerial exception” is a doctrine that allows religious institutions to make employment decisions without the interference of the federal government. Most employers are governed in part by several federal laws that prevent discrimination and wrongful termination based on age, race, religion, place of origin, and gender. However, those employees who work for church-affiliated organizations may find these laws do not protect them.
In some situations, ministerial exception appears to make sense. A Catholic church should not be forced to hire a Jewish rabbi to perform their services because they are not allowed to discriminate against anyone based on religion. But when it comes to employees such as administrators, school teachers, and hospital workers, when the exception should apply is unclear. In the case heard by the Supreme Court, a school teacher was terminated and she filed a discrimination lawsuit claiming she has been terminated because she had narcolepsy, a sleeping disorder. Officials at the parochial school claimed the lawsuit was invalid because she worked for a religious institution and their decision was covered by the ministerial exception. The Supreme Court agreed.
Two cases that were filed recently illustrate the need for greater definition as to whom the exception applies and to whom it does not apply. In an Indiana discrimination lawsuit, a woman claims she was fired from her teaching position at a Catholic school because she and her husband were attempting to have another child through in vitro fertilization. She had been undergoing the treatments for about a year when the church school didn’t renew her 2010 teaching contract. She was told she was terminated because she had gone against the beliefs of the Catholic Church when she started the in vitro treatments and that “[t]he Diocese has clear policies requiring that teachers in its schools must, as a condition of employment, have a knowledge of and respect for the Catholic faith, and abide by the tenets of the Catholic Church as those tenets apply to that person.”