As recently reported on Squire Sanders’ Sixth Circuit blog, the United States Supreme Court recently held that a “ministerial exception” precluded employment discrimination claims brought by ministers against their churches in a landmark decision.  Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, No. 10-553 (January 11, 2012).

In this case, the Court found that a “called teacher” fell within the ministerial exemption.  The Church regarded called teachers as being led into the vocation by God.  In order to become a called teacher specific academic requirements must be met, including theological study, and the teacher must receive a “call” from a congregation, which allows the teacher to receive the formal title “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.”

Previously, the Sixth Circuit recognized the ministerial exception existed, but held that the plaintiff was not a minister because her duties were identical to those of “lay teachers” who were also employed by the church.

Because appellate courts have uniformly recognized the ministerial exception for some time, the Supreme Court’s formal approval of the ministerial exception may not be that surprising.  Perhaps the more interesting question in this case is this: Just who is a “minister”?

The Court refused to answer this question directly and effectively limited its holding to the specific facts of this case.  The Court stated “[w]e are reluctant, however, to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.  It is enough for us to conclude, in this our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers [the plaintiff], given all the circumstances of her employment.”

The decision, however, does take issue with three specific areas of the Sixth Circuit’s decision.  Thus, these areas may provide some guidance for determining whether a specific employee is, or is not, a “minister.”  First, the Supreme Court noted that the Sixth Circuit improperly failed to see the relevance in the plaintiff’s title as a commissioned minister.  Second, the Court noted that the Sixth Circuit gave too much weight to the fact that lay teachers at the school performed the same duties as the plaintiff.  Finally, the Court noted that the Sixth Circuit placed too much emphasis on the plaintiff’s performance of secular duties, noting that the issue presented “is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch.”

Although the Court did not provide a clear test as to who is a minister, it does appear that the Court will likely focus on the totality of the job performed by the individual as opposed to focusing its attention on one factor.  But one can presume that the employee’s title, the training or education that the employee received to attain that title, the employee’s job duties, and whether the employee is regarded as engaging in a ministry will be significant.

What is clear from this decision is that for the first time the Supreme Court has formally recognized the ministerial exception, giving religious organizations the right to select their own ministers without interference from anti-discrimination laws.  As far as predicting just how far this decision will reach . . . stay tuned!