A religious school in California cannot use the “ministerial exception” to label one of its former teachers and, therefore, avoid her disability discrimination lawsuit, a divided federal appeals court has ruled. The court’s decision creates a split among the federal appellate circuits and could cause the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit and perhaps provide more guidance on the meaning of its 2012 decision on the ministerial exception.
Kristin Biel sued St. James Catholic School, alleging the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing the fifth-grade teacher upon learning that she had breast cancer. The school hired her in 2013 to the position of long-term substitute teacher. At the end of that school year, the school hired her to be a full-time fifth grade teacher.
Biel learned she had breast cancer and would need time off from work for chemotherapy. According to Biel, the school declined to renew her contact to teach the following year. Biel then sued, alleging disability discrimination.
The school argued that it was protected by the so-called ministerial exception, a principle rooted in the Religious Liberty Clauses of the First Amendment. Under the ministerial exception, the state cannot interfere in the church’s governance. The exception means that the church is exempt from generally applicable employment laws. The exception is designed to ensure governmental noninterference in the activities of religious entities. However, bluntly stated, the ministerial exception allows religious entities to violate employment discrimination laws and not face the consequences.
Biel argued that she was not a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception and, thus, her employment was not governed by the exception. The church countered that, as an employee of the school, she led students in prayer and thus counts as a minister for purposes of the doctrine.
A federal district court ruled that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Church & School v. EEOC (2012), the ministerial exception applied. Thus, the court dismissed Biel’s lawsuit.
On appeal, a divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in its December 17, 2018, decision in Biel v. St. James School. The majority reasoned that Biel was not a minister but mainly was a teacher who taught her students secular subjects.
The Court examined four principles from Hosanna-Tabor: (1) whether the employer held the employee out as a minister; (2) whether employee’s title reflected ministerial training; (3) whether the employee held herself out as a minister; and (4) whether employee’s job duties included important religious functions.
The 9th Circuit majority in Biel reasoned that the first three factors cut in favor of Biel not being a ministerial employee. The majority wrote that the school did not hold Biel out as a minister, that her title was merely “Grade 5 teacher” and that Biel never held herself out as a minister. To the majority, the only factor cutting in favor of applying the exception was factor (4), because Biel did teach her students religion in addition to secular subjects.
“At most, only one of the four Hosanna-Tabor considerations weighs in St. James’s favor,” the 9th Circuit majority wrote. “No federal court of appeals has applied the ministerial exception in a case that bears so little resemblance to Hosanna-Tabor.”
The majority acknowledged that its decision conflicted with a 7th Circuit decision, Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School (2018). However, the majority said that in the Grussgott case two of the four factors cut in favor of applying the ministerial exception. In addition, the majority questioned whether the 7th Circuit reached the correct result in Grussgott.
One judge on the 9th Circuit panel dissented, focusing on the fact that Biel taught religion four days a week to her students. “Importantly, the substance of Biel’s title of Grade 5 Teacher encompassed the role of religion teacher,” the dissent wrote.
The 9th Circuit decision obviously conflicts with the 7th Circuit’s decision in Grussgott. The 9th Circuit majority recognized that the ministerial exception, if applied broadly, could prohibit any employees of religious schools and churches from receiving the protection of generally applicable employment laws.
As I have argued before, the ministerial exception should not be applied broadly; otherwise, it is a license to discriminate. After the Court’s ruling in Hosanna-Tabor, a trend developed of courts applying the ministerial exception broadly.
The 9th Circuit’s decision is a welcome ruling that recognizes that religious employers should not be able to avoid generally applicable employment laws in many circumstances. The issue could head up to the U.S. Supreme Court eventually.