In my previous blogs, I explained the basics of this judicially-created doctrine, and argued that the ministerial exception can’t really be justified by either the Free Exercise or the Establishment Clause. The main Establishment Clause justification for the ministerial exception is the fear that in adjudicating discrimination claims, courts will become entangled with theological questions or endorse one religious vision over another. In this last post, I want to argue that application of the ministerial exception can entangle a court in religious doctrine more than application of anti-discrimination law.
For the ministerial exception to apply, the plaintiff in a discrimination suit must be a “ministerial” employee. Who counts as a ministerial employee? That is the question before the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC: is a teacher at a religious school who mostly teaches secular subjects but also leads students in prayer and teaches a religion class a ministerial employee? Courts do not simply defer to a religious organization’s characterization of a position, as it could insist that all its employees were ministers. Instead, courts have taken a functional approach, looking at the main duties of the employee, and essentially asking whether plaintiff’s job “is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church.”
In order to decide whether a position is “important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church,” however, a court might have to delve into the religious beliefs of a particular religion. In ruling that a church’s music director was a minister, for example, the Fourth Circuit analyzed the religious significance of music. The plaintiff argued that she was not a ministerial employee because she merely taught people to sing and perform music. The court disagreed, noting that “music serves a unique function in worship” and concluding that the music director’s job was “an integral part of Catholic worship and belief.” In reaching this determination, the court did exactly what the Establishment Clause forbids: choose between competing religious visions. In the plaintiff’s vision of the Roman Catholic faith, music’s significance did not rise to the level of ministry, such that teaching it made her a minister. In the defendant’s vision, it did. The court essentially resolved a religious dispute about the role of music. Hosanna-Tabor potentially presents a similar risk. In determining whether Perich is a minister or not, the Supreme Court may end up resolving a religious dispute about the role of school teachers in Evangelical Lutheran Church schools.