A landmark 2012 U. S. Supreme Court ruling, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, makes it much easier for churches and other ministries to defend themselves when church leaders make decisions based on their religious beliefs (belief-based decisions).
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the most prominent federal law that has been enacted to provide equal employment opportunities for individuals, regardless of the person’s:
In order to comply with the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Title VII includes certain exemptions for religious institutions for employment decisions that are based on the ministry’s religious beliefs. The Hosanna-Tabor ruling brought some clarity to this issue.
In Hosanna-Tabor, the U.S. Supreme Court formally recognized a ministerial exception that effectively bars ministerial staff from suing their employer in response to employment-related, belief-based decisions that ministry leaders have made concerning the employee. The result of this ruling permits churches and related ministries to make hiring and firing decisions based on their religious beliefs.
In Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court declined to specifically define who should be considered a minister for purposes of the exception. Instead, the justices said a court will look to see:
Based on these criteria, senior pastors, associate pastors, and other similar roles within a church or ministry would appear to fit within the three-factor test outlined above. Custodial staff, secretarial staff, and others whose jobs primarily support ministry work (as opposed to performing the ministry work itself) likely won’t be considered ministers for purposes of the exception.
Churches and ministries can protect themselves from non-ministerial staff lawsuits by clearly communicating the ministry’s expectations to job applicants and ministry employees from the first day of employment. Ministry leaders should undertake this effort on several fronts:
Statement of belief: Include a statement of the ministry’s spiritual beliefs within the organization’s governing documents or bylaws. This lays the foundation for the ministry to operate in accordance with its stated beliefs.
Employee handbook: Tell job applicants and your employees what’s expected of ministry workers in writing in your employee handbook. Include a statement letting employees know that you expect them to follow and support the ministry’s spiritual beliefs, and abide by other requirements that the ministry sets forth for its employees.
Consistent response: If your church or ministry treats an employee or a group of employees differently than it does another person or group within the employee body, the odds of the ministry losing a lawsuit increase significantly.
To reduce the likelihood of an employee bringing a successful employment-related lawsuit against your church or ministry, consider the following steps:
For additional information about employment issues related to churches and ministries, please review these additional resources:
Supreme Court Affirms ‘Ministerial Exception,’ written by
Church Law and Tax expert Richard Hammar.
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