Can A Teacher Sue A School For Decisions Based On Religious Beliefs?

Employees in nearly all organizations, secular or religious, can sue their employer because of employment-related decisions. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies specifically to the employer/employee relationship and provides equal employment opportunities for individuals, regardless of the person’s:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin

Many state and local laws mirror Title VII in general terms, but also may broaden the federal statute.

The Law and Religious Freedom

To comply with the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Title VII includes certain exemptions for religious institutions. These exemptions help protect ministry leaders when employment decisions are made based on the ministry’s religious beliefs. Even so, the likelihood that a court will uphold an employee’s claim against a Christian school or related ministry depends largely on two factors:

  • What type of employee is making the claim?
  • What has the religious institution done to clearly spell out its expectation of employees?


Ministerial Exception Recognized

The landmark 2012 Supreme Court ruling, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC,1 makes it easier for religious organizations to defend their belief-based employment decisions when pastors and ministerial staff sue the organization based on state or federal anti-discrimination laws. What’s not as clear is when other school staff and lay employees advance such claims.

In Hosanna-Tabor, the U.S. Supreme Court formally recognized a ministerial exception. In effect, the ruling bars ministerial staff from bringing discrimination lawsuits against their employer in response to employment related, belief-based decisions made by ministry leaders. While this ruling grants greater autonomy to ministries in making employment-related decisions, it did not completely answer the question of who will qualify as a minister for purposes of the exemption.

This particular case involved a teacher at a church-affiliated school, who sued her former employer for disability discrimination when church leaders dismissed her from her teaching position. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that this teacher was, in fact, a minister of the church, and therefore fell within the ministerial exception. But the Court also left many questions unanswered:

  • Who qualifies as a “minister?” Some, but not all, lower courts have extended this to all teachers.
  • What qualifies as a “religious organization?”  A religiously-affiliated school may, or may not, qualify.
  • Can a “minister” sue for wrongful termination on grounds other than discrimination? An example may include breach of contract, which a religious organization voluntarily enters into.


Who’s Considered Ministerial Staff?

Because the ministerial exception only exempts religious institutions from employment discrimination claims that ministers bring against the organization, it’s important to know the definition of the term minister for purposes of the exception. 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:

  1. Whether the religious institution made its decision to hire the individual based “largely on religious criteria.”
  2. Whether the individual is authorized to perform ceremonies of the church.
  3. Whether the person engages in ecclesiastical or religious activities and “attends to the religious needs of the faithful” as part of their job function.

From these criteria, an employed individual whose job function encompasses primarily that of ministering to others can be considered a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception. Senior pastors and other similar roles appear to fit within the three-factor test.

Other employees who have jobs that primarily support ministry work (as opposed to performing the ministry work itself) likely won’t be considered ministers for purposes of the exception. This means that a lawsuit alleging employment discrimination poses a greater threat to the ministry if brought by a teacher or a secretary than by a pastor.

Communicate Expectations to Limit Non-Ministerial Lawsuits

If a school does not clearly spell out its expectations of employees and consistently follow them, the likelihood that a non-ministerial employee could bring a successful claim of discrimination against the organization increases significantly. Christian schools can protect themselves from non-ministerial staff lawsuits by clearly communicating its expectations to job applicants and employees.

Statement of belief: Include a statement of the school’s spiritual beliefs within the organization’s governing documents or bylaws. This lays the foundation for the school to operate in accordance with its stated beliefs.

Employee handbook/Employment Contract: Tell job applicants and your employees what’s expected of teachers, administrators, and staff in writing in your employee handbook. Include a statement letting employees know that you expect them to follow and support the school’s spiritual beliefs and abide by other requirements that the school sets forth for its employees.

Consistent response: If the school treats an employee or a group of employees differently than it does another person or group within the employee body, the odds of the school losing a lawsuit increase significantly. 

Take Steps to Avoid an Employment-Related Lawsuit

To reduce the likelihood of an employee bringing a successful employment-related lawsuit against your school, consider the following steps:

  1. Include a spiritual purpose provision in your governing documents/bylaws. Be sure your organizational governing documents clearly state your school’s spiritual purpose, your reliance on Scripture, and the intent to advance the school in accordance with Scripture. Where appropriate, quote scripture within the purpose statement.
  2. Include a morals clause in your employee handbook and contracts. Be sure your employee handbook includes a policy telling your organization’s employees that the school expects them to support its spiritual purpose and behave in accordance with it. Including such a clause in your handbook and employment contracts, when applied consistently, can go a long way toward protecting the school from employment-related lawsuits.
  3. Respond with sensitivity. Train your clergy, teachers, staff, and volunteers to approach individual needs and requests with empathy. Although you cannot meet every request or demand, the manner in which you convey your response is sometimes as important as what you have decided.
  4. Consult with local counsel: When revising organizational documents and school policies and procedures, involve a local attorney. A wide variety of federal, state, and local laws apply to employer/employee relations. Consulting with a local attorney can provide guidance on any state-specific and local legal issues that you may encounter. You also should contact your attorney and your insurance agent any time you anticipate an employment-related claim against the school.


Have Proper Insurance Coverage for Claims Related to Belief-Based Decisions

Even if a court eventually dismisses a lawsuit, the legal costs associated with employment litigation can be substantial. Accordingly, Christian schools should work with their insurance agent to ensure that their organization has appropriate employment practices coverage in place for the ministry and its leaders.

1Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012).