By Darren M. Sharp |
Unlike other employers, religious organizations are exempt from certain laws prohibiting workplace discrimination. This exemption has evolved into two principal categories: (1) a general exemption for religious organizations and (2) a First Amendment-based exclusion preventing “ministers” from bringing discrimination claims against their employers.
Which Religious Organizations Qualify?
First, religious organizations like churches, religious schools, and other religious non-profits, may discriminate in religious-based employment decisions when the employee’s conduct is inconsistent with the employer’s religious precepts. The exemption is not limited to any specific religion.
To determine whether an organization qualifies for this religious exemption, courts look to whether the purpose and character of the organization is primarily religious. For example, the Salvation Army was determined to be a religious organization exempt from these laws because its various activities were expressly created for the purpose of disseminating Christianity, even if not all its activities were church-related. In fact, religious organizations can still qualify for this exemption if they engage in secular activities, don’t adhere to the strictest tenets of their faith, or don’t adhere to an across-the-board policy of hiring only members of its faith. That said, the exemption does have limitations. As one federal court noted:
[T]he facts show that as far as the direction given the day-to-day life for the children at the Home is concerned, it is practically devoid of religious content or training, as such. While the purpose of caring for and providing guidance for troubled youths is no doubt an admirable and a charitable one, it is not necessarily a religious one. For an organization to be considered “religious” requires something more than a board of trustees who are members of a church.
Fike v. United Methodist Children’s Home, Inc., 547 F. Supp. 286 (E.D. Va. 1982).
This statutory exemption had only always been limited to traditional and non-profit religious organizations, but in 2013, the Supreme Court extended its application to include closely held for-profit corporations operating under religious principles. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that Hobby Lobby couldn’t be compelled to provide employee health care coverage that violated its religious principles. While this ruling was a significant change to the law, it is unlikely to be extended to publicly traded corporations and thus its application is limited.
The Ministerial Exception
The second principal exception, the “ministerial” exception, prevents an employment discrimination claim “brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694, 181 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2012). While religious organizations are generally exempt from certain discrimination claims, the ministerial exception serves to expand their ability to discriminate against otherwise protected classes. The key to the ministerial exception is determining whether the employee is a religious “minister” as defined by caselaw. Though courts initially broadly categorized employees as ministers – even employees who did not carry a leadership or otherwise pastoral-type title – courts have more recently narrowed their interpretations of who qualifies as a minister, looking to see if the employee performed non-religious work, lacked religious training or title, or lacked decision-making authority on religious matters.
Are You Employed By a Religious Organization?
If you work for a religious organization and have concerns about your employer’s conduct or questions about what protections you have as an employee, we welcome you to call and speak with us to help you understand your rights and available options.