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Supreme Court Limits Protections for Employees Working for Religious Schools
July 14, 2020


The First Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the government from establishing a state-sponsored religion. In 2012, in the case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment bars employment discrimination claims from being brought against religious-based employers (such as churches or church affiliated schools) when the employee is a “minister.” The opinion used a multi-factor analysis to decide when an employee qualifies as a “minister.” In 2012, the Supreme Court said courts should consider the title given to the employee, the substance reflected in that title, the employee’s own use of the title and the important religious functions that the employee performs for the employer to determine whether an employee is a “minister.”

Last week, the Court clarified that the four enunciated factors “are not inflexible requirements and may have far less significance in some cases.” The Court stated that, “[w]hat matters, at bottom, is what an employee does” for a school as opposed to the employee’s title. Consequently, the Court found that the ministerial exception applied to two primary school teachers who taught religious subjects to their students – even though the teachers taught a multitude of subjects not just religion – and did not hold themselves out to be ministers.

In short, the employment discrimination statutes such as Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act do not apply to employees who teach religious subjects at religious schools. Employers whose business involves religious discrimination should consider revisiting their handbooks and policies to reflect this new rule from the United States Supreme Court.

Further, the Trump administration filed a Friend of the Court brief in support of the religious schools.  Protecting religious beliefs in the employer-employee context is an important priority of the administration.  

If you have any questions about requirements applicable to employers regarding accommodation of religious beliefs in the workplace, please contact Sean Monson by calling (801) 532-1234 or send an email to smonson@parsonsbehle.com.

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