Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC is the first ministerial exception case to make it to the Supreme Court, even though the Fifth Circuit first recognized the exception in 1972. The ministerial exception is a court-created doctrine that requires the dismissal of lawsuits by ministerial employees against religious organizations. At last Wednesday’s oral argument in Hosanna-Tabor, Justice Samuel Alito asked the church’s lawyer, University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock, how the exception has worked since its inception.
Justice Alito’s question arose soon after Justice Sonia Sotomayor had asked Laycock whether the ministerial exception should apply to “a teacher who reports sexual abuse to the government and is fired because of that reporting.” Justice Sotomayor’s question was probably based on Weishuhn v. Catholic Diocese of Lansing, which has a cert. petition pending before the Court. Weishuhn, a teacher at a Catholic elementary school, alleged violations of the Michigan Civil Rights Act and Whistleblowers’ Protection Act in being fired because she reported possible sexual abuse of a student’s friend to the authorities without first informing her principal. Justice Alito asked if there have been “a great many cases, a significant number of cases, involving the kinds of things that Justice Sotomayor is certainly rightly concerned about, instances in which ministers have been fired for reporting criminal violations and that sort of thing?”
Laycock gave a confusing answer by suggesting that Weishuhn would lose her case on the facts. He said there is a “cert. petition pending [undoubtedly Weishuhn] in which a teacher with a long series of problems in her school called the police about an allegation of sexual abuse that did not happen at the school, did not involve a student of the school, did not involve a parent at the school, someplace else; and — and called the police and had them come interview a student without any communication with — with her principal. And the Respondents tried to spin that as a case of discharge for reporting sexual abuse. But if you look at the facts it’s really quite different.”