Supreme Court Clarifies the Scope of the Constitutional Rights of Religious Institutions

July 9, 2020

By: Frank Harty

“When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.” -- Justice Samuel Alito


In a landmark decision the United States Supreme Court recently held that the Constitution precludes American courts from hearing employment claims by most religious school educators [Our Lady Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru, No 19-267 (July 8, 2020)]. The Plaintiffs in Guadalupe were two school teachers who filed discrimination claims against separate Catholic schools. The Court in Guadalupe held that despite teaching secular subjects, in addition to religion, the teachers were “ministers” of the Catholic faith whose employment is a religious matter beyond the jurisdiction of secular courts. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to apply the First Amendment-based ministerial exception doctrine outlined in the Hosanna Tabor decision. The Guadalupe court was critical of the appellate court’s narrow and “rigid” application of Hosanna Tabor. The Supreme Court explained that the “approach” resulted in a “distorted analysis.” Id.


In Guadalupe the Court looked to the Catholic Church’s own requirements for educators. The Court noted that in the Catholic tradition, religious education is “intimately bound up with the whole of the Church’s life.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church 8 (2d ed. 2016).] Under canon law, the religious code of the Church, local bishops must satisfy themselves that “those who are designated teachers of religious instruction in school…are outstanding in correct doctrine, the witness of a Christian life, and teaching skill.” [Code of Canon Law, Canon 804, §2 (Eng. Transl. 1998).]


There are clear lessons to be gleaned from Guadalupe:


  1. the First Amendment provides robust protections;
  2. the absence of a clerical or religious title does not preclude the application of the ministerial exception doctrine;
  3. formal religious education is not necessary;
  4. it is not necessary for an employee in question to be a “practicing” member of a faith; and
  5. the ministerial exception doctrine offers broad protection to religious institutions.


As religious institutions evaluate the lessons of Guadalupe they would be well advised to review their workforce and attempt to determine those positions to which the doctrine applies. Though the Guadalupe decision provides a robust exemption, it clearly does not apply to the entire workforce. Secretarial, janitorial, transportation and support staff are most likely excluded from the scope of the doctrine. There are a few positions that should be closely analyzed. Most front-line classroom educators will be covered.


In determining whether an employee is a minister for application of the exception, the courts will look to all the circumstances of employment. [See Our Lady Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru, No 19-267 (July 8, 2020) and Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171, 190 (2012).] Although there is no rigid formula, elements to consider are the following:


  1. whether the Church held out the employee as a minister (title);
  2. whether the title reflected a significant degree of religious training (substance of the title);
  3. whether the employee held himself or herself out as a minister (use of title);
  4. whether the employee’s job duties included important religious functions; and
  5. whether the employee is entrusted with faith formation in any manner.


See Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day Sch., Inc., 882 F.3d 655, 658 (7th Cir. 2018); Ginalski v. Diocese of Gary, No. 2:15-CV-95-PRC, 2016 WL 7100558, at *4 (N.D. Ind. Dec. 5, 2016) (evaluating these factors to find that a principal was a minister); see also Fratello v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of N.Y., 175 F. Supp. 3d 152, 163–64 (S.D.N.Y. 2016), aff’d sub nom. Fratello v. Archdiocese of N.Y., 863 F.3d 190 (2d Cir. 2017) (same); cf. Dias v. Archdiocese of Cincinnati, No. 1:11-CV-00251, 2012 WL 1068165, at *5 (S.D. Ohio Mar. 29, 2012) (evaluating these factors in finding that a computer teacher at parochial school was not a minister).


For questions regarding this decision and how it might impact your organization, contact your Nyemaster Goode attorney.