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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Ministerial Exception and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Employment Discrimination and Religious Organizations

Cynthia Brougher
Legislative Attorney

Congress has enacted a number of federal laws banning discrimination in employment decisions, including hiring and firing of employees. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment if the discrimination is based on race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits discrimination in employment based on age. Exceptions in these laws for religious organizations have reflected long-standing recognition of the autonomy of religious organizations in certain employment decisions.

While these statutory provisions protect religious organizations in selected contexts, religious organizations also have constitutional protection, known as the ministerial exception. The ministerial exception protects the employment relationship between a religious entity and its ministerial employees. Courts have long held that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution bars the government from interfering with internal governance of religious organizations, including decisions regarding employment of ministers or ministerial employees. This exception has generally been framed relatively narrowly to avoid undermining the public policy goals of nondiscrimination legislation. Thus, only religious institutions may claim the ministerial exception and may only do so if the employee functions as a minister or ministerial employee. The boundaries of the exception are not yet settled though. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the ministerial exception as a necessary outgrowth of its jurisprudence on noninterference in the internal governance of religious organizations (Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC). However, the Court did not define the scope of the exception and declined to identify a standard for determining whether an employee could be labeled as ministerial.

This report analyzes the history and constitutional bases for the ministerial exception and examines selected statutory provisions reflecting its protections under the ADA and other employment laws. The report examines the distinction between the constitutional and statutory protections for religious organizations and addresses critical questions involved in judicial consideration of the ministerial exception. It analyzes which employees may qualify as ministerial, the extent to which courts may defer to religious entities claiming the exception, and whether the exception may apply to any claim brought against a religious entity.

Date of Report:
March 27, 2012
Number of Pages:
Order Number: R424
Price: $29.95

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